The Adventures of Anne Marie de Bourbon – an existentialist ‘puppet drama’ showing as part of the New Theatre’s Fringe season – stubbornly resists classification. An absurdist comedy, pantomime, musical, pirate story and even a lecture, the writer of this theatrical pick-and-mix (Chris Trueman) has found the perfect platform for his profound creativity, breathing new life into a format traditionally reserved for vacant toddlers at the village fête.
For this play, though abounding with glossy Poundland wigs, upbeat songs and a smatter of that ‘Oh no you didn’t/Oh yes you did’ panto malarkey, is by no means for Nottingham’s minors – it is for us. Sam Greenwood, superb as Professor Harry Lavelle, adroitly captures the endearing mannerisms of the eccentric academic type, fumbling and gesturing profusely as he delivers a philosophical lecture on the credibility of written history – does history really follow ‘a linear trajectory?’ His ramblings frame and intrude upon the student puppet show that he has directed, which in recounting the tale of our eponymous heroine, is presented to illustrate a historical blurring of fantasy and reality.
As Trueman, and by extension Lavell, have intended, the imagined realm of chromatic puppetry becomes a familiar critique of human shortcomings.
Beginning on the perilous high seas of sky-blue cardboard, there is a whiff of predictability – Anne Marie (Felicity Chilver) is a stowaway, Captain Truebeard (Joe Hincks) is a bit of a sexist lad and, for a brief moment, it all seems a bit Cap’n Jack. Plus, the template for the puppets – though effective in its versatility – is a tad Muppetesque. The maritime marauder is reinvented however, as Trueman moves to squash the archetypes we know so well. Truebeard is a singing homosexual, his harsh pirate accent occasionally lightened by Scottish inflections, while the Witch of Carog (Lizzie Frainier) – perhaps the most impressive puppet with its hooked foam nose and obligatory wart – confesses to a host of insecurities. Any reservations about the limited expressive capacities of the naturally mouthy, but otherwise facially-paralysed felt cast, were dispelled by a very visible human cast, who animated them with aplomb. Mike Bradley (The Cursed King) shouted his Italian lines with a comic theatricality, his mouth opening and closing robotically to achieve a commendable staccato. This clarity of voice and character would have been substantially muted had the puppeteers been obscured.
We, the audience, are the student receptacles of Lavelle’s fictitious lecture; we provide answers to his questions; we are the inhabitants of a clever theatre/lecture theatre pun.
As Trueman, and by extension Lavell, have intended, the imagined realm of chromatic puppetry becomes a familiar critique of human shortcomings. Cynthia (Alice Richards), a xenophobic tree who resents the arrival of ‘more bleeding immigrants,’ is also repulsed by the mixed-race origins of the surrounding foliage, while Truebeard is a casual perpetrator of #everydaysexism. A degree of brevity is brought by the play’s unapologetic crassness – there is a recurrent “up the arse” gag and profanities aplenty – that becomes full-blown, farcical merriment when delivered in rhyming song. Imogen Harrison’s (Musical Director) musical pastiche delights in its drawing on popular culture (MJ), the Musical canon (Wicked) and the classic ‘bottle o’ rum’ seadog shanty. Regrettably, a couple of renditions careered through a range of (wrong) keys, while the vocal disharmony of the ensemble songs was reminiscent of a school play.
Essentially, The Adventures of Anne Marie de Bourbon isn’t really about its rather bland title character at all – it is about us
Experimental to the fore, Trueman situates himself alongside esteemed practitioners of Epic theatre with his relentless battering of that old favourite – the fourth wall. We, the audience, are the student receptacles of Lavelle’s fictitious lecture; we provide answers to his questions; we are the inhabitants of a clever theatre/lecture theatre pun. Trueman demolishes the play-audience partition in advance of its showing however (read the Impact interview with Lavelle), which I must confess left me a tad dumfounded.
Essentially, The Adventures of Anne Marie de Bourbon isn’t really about its rather bland title character at all – it is about us. We repress the existentialist angst that Lavelle exhibits, harbor the insecurities that dog the ostensibly assured puppets; we are the actors behind that stage. But the play’s dark core is so effectively masked with music and satire that this unflattering reflection becomes intensely enjoyable.
And at £3 a ticket, this refreshing take on the puppet show is not to be missed.
‘The Adventures of Anne Marie de Bourbon’ is running at New Theatre until Monday 8th of December, for more information see here