Full of possibilitiesBy Kim Edwards
Barking Spider have been creating and presenting some thrilling and innovative theatre in recent times, from captivating story-telling in The Memorandium and dream worlds in Psychopomp and Seething, to lavish spectacle in Liberty of the Press and delightful domesticity in One Suitcase: Four Stories. Their most recent performance was part of the Roola Boola Children’s Arts Festival, and Short Pants No Holes is promoted as a hands-on puppetry and story-telling show.
Even with an intimate audience, performers Penelope Bartlau and Rachel Edward were vibrant with charm and excitement. Their casual and witty pre-show patter was very engaging for kids and adults alike, and set a lovely relaxed tone for the show. The opening sequence was a beautiful bunraku performance with a little boy, a box and his toy. The dexterity and sensitivity of the puppeteers working in tandem was delightful, and the simplicity of the tale, told in movement rather than words, captivating.
What followed was distinctly at odds with this initial impact. Bartlau is a masterful improviser and story-teller, and took random suggestions and objects from the audience to weave witty and weird tales. She was animated and interesting, and the skill with which even the most difficult and erratic prompts from her eager young audience were accepted and utilised was excellent. This forms the majority of the performance, which ends with a cute reworking of a fairytale with vegetables, and the audience being given carrots to briefly ‘puppeteer’ for themselves.
Overall, the show was definitely enjoyable, but felt lacking. The emphasis was on quirkiness, improvisation and minimalism, but with an effort to make a more visually interesting stage, the production was rather like the set pieces: lots of promising-looking shapes under wraps, but unfortunately not much opened up or revealed. In the story-telling, Edward’s obvious talents seemed underused in fielding audience answers and running crowd control – I would have loved to see her take up the story thread at some point, or provide character voices or accompanying action. Also, it was a surprise that there was no more ‘hands-on’ interaction with the narratives being created – after the fabulous little ‘find your imagination’ exercise, it seemed a shame the children only called out answers rather than being prompted to explore other relevant group sounds or movements from their seats.
Ultimately there didn’t seem to be a clear picture as to how the disparate elements of the show were working together: the lovely opening energy then wonder fell into an awkward pace, and my little theatre companion (although distinctly younger than the school-aged audience at which the production is aimed), kept asking wistfully if the puppet was coming back? This is not a new show, so perhaps (as is understandable with impro) this particular performance just didn’t quite gel, but with its loose, rather oddly structured shape and uneven, mysterious tone (what does the title mean? and why carrots?), Short Pants No Holes felt full of entertaining moments and unrealised potential.
Short Pants No Holes was performed at Chapel Off Chapel as part of the 2015 Roola Boola festival.