Review: Puppets

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Barney Watts’ Puppets presents us with the lives of two working-class brothers, who, though having been separated for years, reunite and rediscover their brotherhood and the love they carry for one another.

While Lonny, portrayed by Alex Davies, battles recent heartbreak and loneliness, running his pub all alone, the self-destructive antics of his brother Connie, Freddie Mitchell, as he struggles to reunite with his daughter, keep him on his toes. Written in an episodic structure, we are invited to witness a pivotal time in these characters’ lives. In such a short space of time, through their intensity, vulnerability and chaotic relationship, we learn to love these characters, and all their flaws, completely. Much of this success must be attributed to the actors, whose chemistry and impeccable characterisation made the show.

Both the written speech patterns as well as the accents and delivery of Davies and Mitchell portrayed an amazing level of realism. Furthermore, the extent of world-building, with many characters known only by name, in particular for a two-man, one set, show was brilliantly constructed.

Watts believably captured the brotherly relationship between Lonny and Connie – their moments of pettiness and bickering being so familiar to many of us.  In particular Davies’ hilarious repetition of his order for Connie to do the job he’s being paid for, to sweep the pub floor, becoming angrier and more comically cartoonish every time was a great highlight that elicited big laughs all around. phenomenally embodies both the raw, gritty and anguished side along with the endearingly playful side of Connie’s character.

Much of this success must be attributed to the actors, whose chemistry and impeccable characterisation made the show
 

This impeccably realistic characterisation was mixed with some brilliantly artistic staging, including the blackout scene after Connie returns, heavily intoxicated from a night out, waking an increasingly perturbed Lonny with his incessant bantering and uncensored stream of consciousness. With a fantastic, varied and intentional use of space and levels, despite having no set changes, nothing felt stagnant, and we easily understood the progression of time.

The comedic moments of the play help balance the increasingly heavy subject matter as the play progresses and we see the brothers’ sensitivity: though a self-confessed player, Connie’s desperation to fix his family’s separation is evident while Lonny’s silent stoicism is often caught cracking, displaying the heartache and loneliness within. Both brothers’ ability to be vulnerable with each other increases scene to scene as we unearth the endearment and companionship the years apart have hidden.

. Both brothers’ ability to be vulnerable with each other increases scene to scene as we unearth the endearment and companionship the years apart have hidden

Davies’ Lonny had an amazing connection to the audience, often portraying Lonny’s internalised emotion with immense sensitivity; an especially hard-hitting scene saw Lonny overhearing Connie’s conversation on the phone with his girlfriend, disparaging the flourishing relationship between the two brothers. Despite having no lines, we deeply felt Davies’ heartbreak.

Though, the play also expertly deals with some gritty political themes. Lonny’s discovery at the end of the play of Connie’s wounds, inflicted by his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child, is shocking yet, his immediate raw response, telling Connie it is not his fault, was a conscious, topical comment on the portrayal of male victims. Connie’s violent lashing out against his brother as his devastating secret is brought to light issues an important comment on the dangers of toxic masculinity and harmful gender stereotypes that silence and shame male victims. Important was the characterisation of abuse as more than simply violence as we see Connie exposed to gaslighting and isolation tactics. Overall, Watts’ work provides us with a sensitive and thought-provoking portrayal of a young man, and father, victimised by domestic abuse which we should all applaud.

Fading to black to the hauntingly nostalgic voice of Etta James, A Sunday Kind of Love, the ending was a full circle moment as Lonny is once again left alone, both literally and metaphorically beaten down, leaving the piece perfectly artistically complete. In terms of writing, creative direction and overall performance, Puppets was easily one of my, if not the favourite performance of the Durham Drama Festival circuit.

Image credit: Fourth Wall Theatre Company

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