With stage musicals being turned into movies, books into plays, and singers' back catalogues into flimsy show storylines, it's becoming rare these days to see a piece of theatre (outside of a Fringe festival) that can ONLY exist as live performance and reminds you just how exciting, inclusive and powerful the medium can be. Incorporating improvisation, scripted moments, audience participation, cabaret and slapstick with a macabre, dark undercurrent - and all performed by faceless, homemade looking puppets -
Incorporating improvisation, scripted moments, audience participation, cabaret and slapstick with a macabre, dark undercurrent - and all performed by faceless, homemade looking puppets - Boris & Sergey's Astonishing Freakatorium is that sort of piece and makes the theatre all the richer for existing.
From the opening announcement that anyone who swoons can use the smelling salts under their seats and that if you want to go to the toilet then tough, tie a knot in it, you start to gauge the humour that follows. When the brothers (lovers?), Boris and Sergey, are introduced and give themselves 'spooky' monikers ("Boris The Great" and "Sergey The....Child Molester"), that humour clearly has a darker edge. The six supremely talented puppeteers bring Boris and Sergey to life with a cohesive, almost balletic fluidity - no strings here, it's all about the tiniest (and biggest) movements of each limb - that makes them such an embodiment of the dolls as to render them almost invisible. If you've seen the puppetry in War Horse, then you will know the magical vision that this creates - though, as the company were keen to point out to me later, "War Horse this ain't!"
The first half hour of the show puts these skills fully to the test as they create a scary story based on audience callouts. The tale I saw of a fish called Brian and Fred the alligator ('embodied' by Boris and Sergey) learning to fly, read and raise a fox left in their care...before eating the fox ("How do you eat an umbrella?" is not a question I ever expected to hear in life, let alone at the theatre) was as hilarious as it sounds bizarre - and yet the way that the cast work off each other, and together, belied the fact that they were successfully creating something out of very little. It seems you actually can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
The show proper then sees a series of freak show style "turns" being introduced by our boys - including a dancing 'Hellman' and 'Pinhead', a cockfight and Boris performing escapology. These are all short, single-gagged sketches, each with a dark payoff; unsettling enough to challenge the adults in the audience with the deeper meaning, whilst still retaining humour (of the blackest sort) so as not to upset the younger element. (As an aside, I would say that the 12+ audience recommendation is more down to the proliferation of the f-word than the 'horror'.) They work and are clearly what the company are using to tell a more disturbing tale, but they do change the pace and tone, being, as they are, sandwiched between the two longer, improvised sections that open and close the piece - and so they rather throw the audience off track. This isn't at all helped by the unnecessary and unwanted interval that has been forced on them in this production - and it's to the venue's detriment that the company felt forced to interrupt the show in this way in order to play here. Perhaps seeing it run as the one act it is made for will lessen the impact of the change of pace that it had as I saw it.
The successful balance of dark and light returns for the semi-improvised 'seance' at the end. Whether or not the company are aware of it, when they haven't had time to (over?)think the story or their objectives for the show is when they seem most alive and create fantastic (and often hilarious and dark) theatre. It's almost like two different shows - the one in the set pieces that they've spent time rehearsing and deliberating over, which they fully know the point of (but may evade some of the audience) and the one that happens right in the moment and carries everyone along. Never is this more clear than in the final moments, with a scene that seems to come from nowhere (which I won't give away here) and leaves the audience feeling perplexed and confused - as though it has come from another show entirely. I don't think that theatre should be comfortable, predictable and wrap up everything nicely - indeed it is fantastic to break traditions and surprise expectations - but it's a fine line between challenging and alienating, and when the point being made isn't clear, it creates an element of exclusion that feels so out of place with what has, until then, been an inclusive and shared experience. If it were my call, on balance, I would cut this out - or at least consider how to retain the humour in the darkness that has been so successful until then.
The result is that you leave with a very different feeling to the positive hour beforehand. It felt like having been invited to dinner by a friend and then being slapped in the face over dessert - sure, it has a powerful impact, but not the one I would want to remember from the occasion. I still urge you to spend time at the 'Amazing Freakatorium' if it comes your way - travel if they aren't that near! - for an unforgettable reminder of how great live theatre can be. Just don't change your opinion of what is a great show because of a rather unfitting and unusual choice of ending.