There is something inherently heartbreaking about the small metal-framed chair standing centre-stage as the audience comes in, but no more so than when one of the show’s co-devisers, Matthew Lloyd, walks on stage carrying the bald, spectacle-wearing puppet that becomes the central focus of the show. Gently placing this puppet in the seat, like a carer with an elderly patient, we are briefly informed – by a Stephen Hawking-styled computer voice – that this puppet represents Ted, a man who, on being diagnosed with the debilitating, incurable condition Motor Neurone Disease (MND), decides to stop collecting stamps from faraway places and visit them instead.
There’s little doubt that his happy and sad story will linger in the memory.
This journey of a lifetime, which forms a large part of the show, includes shopping in the markets of Lille and finding romance in Venice over a shared interest in the books of Bill Bryson. Yet the most remarkable thing about this fairytale-esque presentation is that it uses such overt artificiality, the puppet being operated in plain sight by up to three people on stage, aided by the graphical simplicity of Japanese shadow puppetry on screens towards the rear, to communicate a story with real warmth and emotional impact.
Scuffed knees notwithstanding, Lloyd and fellow co-devisers William Aubrey Jones and Molly Freeman are dressed in sober black; while this starkly contrasts with the whiteness of characters and props on stage, they nevertheless together achieve a theatrical metamorphosis in which they largely fade in significance while Ted and his pet goldfish becomes living, breathing beings. They are helped in this task by a subtle, supportive and enveloping soundscape, composed by Emily Appleton Holley, along with some beautifully effective lighting designed by Sherry Coenen. Yet it is Ted’s story – told, for the most part, wordlessly – that holds the attention. Even when the object of Ted’s romance is portrayed with nothing more than a head and a single white plaster hand, we believe it.
Perhaps our affection for Ted is part-based on the puppet’s somewhat child-like proportions, its non-threatening appearance, and how the three performers excel in creating the subtlest of movement in the character. Yet, as the slowly developing shaking, tripping and dizziness suggest, Ted’s story has only one destination – and it’s not a good one. We aren’t presented with the most extreme consequences of the condition – the story stops at a point when Ted can still honestly say he is living with MND, not dying from it, and the show could have possibly had the courage to push a bit further – but there’s little doubt that his happy and sad story will linger in the memory.