Deep in the bowels of the Barbican lies a show which defies categorisation. Comedy or tragedy? Musical theatre or performance art? The Devil and Mister Punch makes and breaks stage conventions with every strike of Punch’s bat.
One of the strengths of this show is in its conception – the narrative relentlessly highlights the sheer horror of Mister Punch’s deeds. We are enticed by the beautifully-crafted puppet world to accept the action as children’s entertainment, until emphatic cries of ‘murder!’ and avid drum-beating force us to realise the atrocities committed. Punch kills three people, including two members of his own family, just to get them to shut up. That’s the way to do it.
On sheer craftsmanship in their musical performances, Improbable Theatre Company cannot be faulted. Saskia Lane gave a truly virtuosic display on the double bass, with enthralling extended solos. The entire ensemble joined in with genuinely gripping musical passages – this is no rag-tag bunch of actor-musicians, they provide an enchanting devised score expertly executed. My one major gripe was with the occasional songs which both stopped the action and failed to make comment on it. Reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens in their vocal delivery and wistful outlook, these songs were perfectly lovely in themselves – however they were to all intents and purposes irrelevant and irritating in the context of the show.
There were some astounding displays of sheer physicality from lead player Nick Haverson, including an incredibly convincing transformation from man to monkey and back again with both humour and deep sadness. Haverson’s knack for marrying showmanship with gravity carried Punch’s tragicomedy, and raised the piece from a string of vaudeville acts to a poignant commentary on the nature of performance, the mask and the face, and on the death of traditional puppetry.
This is not a show for children, as the naked Germans and penis-monsters can attest (it’s OK if it’s a puppet… right?). Similarly it is not for those seeking out-and-out comedy, laden as it is with stodgy pregnant pauses. To use a popular entertainment form for serious theatrical purposes was brave, but in this case Improbable perfectly balanced the two, giving an intellectually stimulating yet entertaining evening.