Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Review: Janet (HelenandJohn, GM Fringe)

Monday 9th July 2018
King’s Arms, Salford

For me, the best (and strongest) part of a fringe festival is the variety of performances on offer. I mentioned in a previous post that the Greater Manchester Fringe programme is expanding year by year, and the 2018 schedule is certainly the most ambitious one yet. Last year, I was only able to see two Fringe shows (though both were innovative and exciting in very different ways). So I’m also expanding my schedule this year – I’m trying to see a much bigger range of stuff, to really get a flavour of the diversity of this year’s programme.

So, after seeing a musical, a one-woman spoken word show and an old-school farce, the next show I saw was described as ‘object theatre’ or ‘unconventional puppetry’.

Janet, co-devised and performed by Helen Ainsworth, is a story about the struggle to find individual identity in the face of inescapable (and cruel) destiny. Janet is born – to an English father and French mother – and from the very moment of her birth, her future path is sternly mapped out for her. The show follows Janet’s attempts to reject this path, and the trials and tribulations that follow.

What makes this story unusual is that Janet is played by a lumped of uncooked bread dough. Her father is a jug of water, and her mother a bag of flour.

Object theatre differs from conventional puppetry in that the puppets are found objects, rather than tailor-made mannequins. In this performance, the only puppet made especially for the show is Janet herself, as a new batch of dough is produced for each performance. Other characters are played by a teapot and a rolling pin, though Ainsworth is also present on stage as the baker/puppeteer.

The skill (and the charm) of the performance lies in Ainsworth’s manipulation of the objects – particularly the unruly blob of dough that is Janet herself. The ease with which the audience accepts the anthropomorphism of these everyday items is impressive – enhanced by Ainsworth’s seamless voicing of the characters – and it is incredible how something as ordinary as a bag of flour becomes so animated in her hands.

One of my favourite parts of the show was Janet’s dream sequence. As Janet falls asleep, visions of bloomers, croissants, baguettes and sliced white float around her, reminding her of the inevitable destiny she faces. Again, Ainsworth’s skill in manipulating household objects is extraordinary, and these sequences play out like stop motion animation.

As a metaphor, of course, the uncooked lump of dough is quite a clear one. Object theatre often relies on such use of metaphor, as it encourages audiences to engage in more non-literal thinking. However, there’s a complex back-and-forth here. On the one hand, we’re being invited to think about the metaphor of unformed dough in terms of identity, self-determination and societal pressure (and, in places, gender). On the other, the performance invites us to think about the object itself, wondering about the possibilities of movement inherent (but hitherto undeveloped) in the inanimate item. There’s a playfulness here, as the manipulation of the dough to move in recognisably human ways is reminiscent of how children interact with plasticine and Play-Doh, but there’s also something rather intellectual in the show’s understanding of the desire (need, even) to create narrative and story out of such games.

Ultimately, Janet is a story of an unconventional character. And I guess the mark of its success lies in how invested the audience is in character – how far we’re able to see Janet as Janet, and forget that she’s actually an inanimate lump of dough being moved by a woman in a baker’s costume. And, in that, the show was undoubtedly effective. From the moment Ainsworth flipped a teapot upside-down and made ‘Lady Grey’ talk, I was immersed in the story, and Janet herself is as much an identifiable puppet as a bespoke marionette would be.

Without giving any spoilers, I will say that this show has its dark moments. Janet’s interaction with the baguettes Claude and François is… uncomfortable. (Make no mistake – this is not a show for children. I don’t think I quite expected a bag of flour to swear so bitterly!) The show’s blurb promises ‘a little B-Movie Horror’, and this is certainly apparent. It also has one of the most unsettling endings I’ve seen in a puppet show.

Janet is an expertly performed tragi-comedy, with laughs, surprises and an unnerving finale. It’s off-beat, unusual and very enjoyable – everything I’m looking for in a Fringe production.

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