A plant puppet ejaculated onto my leg during an incredibly prickly sex scene with a Spanish rose that had recently undergone plastic surgery. Oddly enough this wasn’t actually the strangest part of my evening. Cicada’s sell-out production of Blood & Bone at the Vault Festival is an example of everything that is great about fringe theatre. Centred around four (rather rude) plant puppets, the actors deliver a clever and witty political satire that borders on the hallucinogenic and leaves you wondering exactly what it was you just saw.
Puppet plays, especially those of an adult nature, have enjoyed a hugely successful revival over the past decade. Despite having been a part of the British cultural landscape for centuries there seemed to have been a notable decline in more risqué puppet shows, while children’s puppetry, riding on the back of huge franchises like Sesame Street, continued to boom. Over the past decade however large scale productions such as the Tony award winning Avenue Q have received huge critical acclaim. Fringe festivals worldwide have also seen a recent spike in puppetry productions aimed at adult audiences, particularly those offering social commentary. And so it appears that, rather than competing with other art forms, puppetry has adapted itself into the mainstream using the plurality and flexibility available to it as a medium. In the same way that cartoons such as The Simpsons and Family Guy can provide a space for more political and societal commentary, Avenue Q has proved that puppetry can utilise the stage to the same effect. There seems to be something about foul mouthed, sexually frustrated puppets and the ability to open up debate on politically sensitive topics.
In Blood & Bone, Ash, a small orange fern, has big ideas. He lives in a greenhouse with his friends Clover and Braxlin under the rule of a slightly authoritarian shovel, who longs for the good old days. Ash dreams of the outside world beyond the safety of the greenhouse’s glass walls, and all is turned upside down by the arrival of the pruned and busty Rosa, a rose from “the garden centre”. The world of the fertiliser addicted friends is under threat by the external force of Donald J. Stump and the erection of the Mike Fence in order to make the garden great again. This play has a bit of everything: musical numbers, sex, drugs, and German techno-loving mushrooms.
The Vaults festival has provided a space for the whacky and bizarre, something that deserves to be celebrated. Under the train tracks at Waterloo something extraordinary is happening year on year and it is companies like this that are in the driving seat. Festivals such as Vault and, on a much bigger scale, the Edinburgh Fringe are crucial for the continued creation of more off-the- wall theatre – a category into which Blood & Bone definitely falls – providing both performance spaces and the ability for artistic exchange between more niche theatre companies.
Cicada utilise the medium of puppetry to great effect and with considerable skill. All four actors are extremely visible throughout, but this in no way detracts from the performance, rather than succumbing to an illusion, the audience are drawn along with the almost farcical nature of the events on stage. There are even times when the puppets interact with the puppeteers to create great moments of comedy external to the story. With a minimalistic set the characters are brought to life by the vocalisations of this talented group. The comedy of Blood & Bone is ingeniously maintained in its scene changes: making light of their minimalist set (common to all fringe theatre), sardonic announcements such as “We’re outside” are common and always elicited a laugh from the audience. Blood & Bone’s deadpan humour which comes through in an abundance of puns – a personal favourite is “soil mates” – alongside a great physical presence from the cast provides a genuinely witty and laugh out loud performance. However despite the humour, there is a disturbing reality underneath as the speech of Donald J Stump rings true. Whilst we laugh, somewhere within ourselves we realise that actually these puppets aren’t so removed from us after all.
Blood & Bone is showing at the Vault Festival until the 19th February.