Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s exploration of ‘digital puppetry’ continues with this latest work, inspired by playing around with mobile phones. It starts off promisingly as we are introduced to our trio of storytellers: Fox (Mel King), Wolf (Ryk Goddard) and Hare (Sam McMahon). They prance before us, mugging and grinning, and tell us about what we’re about to see. We will find out about a little girl called Helena Bugosi and her father, the opera singer, and her mother, who had an orchard but who’s now gone to live ‘in the phone’.
Unfortunately for a show that only goes for an hour, it’s a long time before we get to the real story. There’s some clowning around and a few tangents, such as an interlude about Helena’s job singing a nobleman to sleep. Eventually we learn all about Helena’s parents’ disappearances and her understandable disappointment, but information is revealed rather elliptically, which seems an odd choice for a show aimed at anyone over the age of five.
I have to admit, when I saw the three narrators come out, I was hoping for the sort of old-fashioned show in which you just get told a story. Certainly, there are lots of stories here, but working out how they all fit together is rather taxing; not to mention trying to fathom the significance of the mobile phones that keep appearing, sometimes just used as a sort of amplification device (an actor speaks into one phone and the other one is hooked up to a nearby microphone) and sometimes as ‘puppets’, their coloured LCD screens whirling around in the darkness, disembodied squares of light.
It’s baffling but there are plenty of marvels to entertain us along the way; from Kate Davis’s wonderful set design to the musical moments (sometimes courtesy of the three performers, sometimes recorded music from Mikelangelo and Fred Showell). There’s a lovely scene where Helena’s father, absurdly moustachioed and played with relish by Goddard, runs away to the forest to be alone. The forest creatures are determined to eat him up, but can’t when they hear his beautiful singing: instead, they join in. The image of this foolishly attired man warbling away with a fox is strangely affecting. There are also a couple of numbers with McMahon playing the guitar, adding some lively energy to proceedings. His character of the Hare, dopey with occasional flashes of wit, is an under-utilised highlight.
When Helena’s mother (King) decides to run away from home, the only room she can get her belongings from without waking up the household is the kitchen. So she packs up a rolling pin to use as a walking stick, rubber bands to tie back her hair and a cheese grater – “because she liked grated cheese with most meals”. This is an engaging sequence, with poor old Mrs Bugosi glumly climbing up one of the tower structures that make up the set to retrieve these useful items. It’s this sort of comic detail that reveals Finegan Kruckemeyer’s gifts as a writer. The fairytale quality of his dialogue works well here: lyrical and slightly off-centre. King, meanwhile, infuses the character with a compelling mix of comedy and pathos. She’s an ordinary woman making an heroic decision.
The problem is that the many amusing and original elements of Helena and the Journey of Hello don’t come together clearly until the final scene. This is no doubt deliberate, but it feels like too little too late. It would have been good to understand more of the context earlier on, so that the experience could have been enjoyed without a sense of disconnection. This is an ambitious tale dealing with such themes as depression, grief, loneliness and immortality. There's a dazzling array of clever and well-made props and, overall, the play’s message is uplifting. But rather than flitting from idea to idea, round and round, it would have been satisfying just to sit with one thing for a while. The technological aspects, the mobile phones, only distract from the human stories that are at the core of the piece.
There’s a sequence in which the letters of Helena Bugosi’s name are rearranged to spell new words, phrases with special meaning to the story. More than once I heard the little chap behind me whisper desperately, “What does that say?”. Alas, the young man could not read, and therefore much of this scene was lost on him. I kind of knew how he felt.
Terrapin Puppet Theatre presents
Helena and the Journey of the Hello
by Finegan Kruckemeyer
Venue: Peacock Theatre | Salamanca Arts Centre, 77 Salamanca Place Hobart
Dates/Times: Fri 10 – Sat 11 & Weds 15 – Sat 18 October 2008 @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Saturday 11 & 18 October @ 2pm
Tickets: Child $10, Adult $18, Concession $12, Family (4 tix) $45
Bookings: Theatre Royal Box Office 6233 2299 | www.theatreroyal.com.au