A heavy, wooden structure, with countless windows, peepholes and doors, stretches across the Barbican’s Pit stage. Endless arms poke through tiny spaces and carefully place down props. A metronome starts ticking. Every movement is, in the opening moments of Improbable’s The Devil and Mister Punch, measured and precise. But then Punch appears and this divine order is turned upside down and, what begins as a children’s show, slowly transforms into a deliciously grotesque musical medley.
It’s perhaps not surprising that this warped re-imagining of the infamous children’s puppet, Punch (who first performed in 1662), is so full of twisted images, strange senses of scale and oddly meshed genres. Punch was always a fairly screwed up children’s hero – a puppet who murdered his family in cold blood, punctuating each act with a triumphant cry of, ‘That’s the way to do it!’ He’s not what you’d call an ideal role model. But, in Improbable’s wildly amped up exploration of this ‘family friendly’ show, Punch is scarier than the devil himself.
Director Julian Crouch releases these dark undercurrents ever so gradually. Just as the show begins with some semblance of control – with puppet masters, Harvey and Hovey, firmly in charge – so too is it initially rather innocent. The curtains open to reveal fluffy clouds, against which various objects dance. Two musicians enter and play a warm little love song at the piano. Punch, although he kills his baby and wife, sticks close to his script, as he desperately flees from PC plod. It is only when Punch is chucked into jail – and his future performances, as well as those of Harvey and Hovey, are put at risk – that this children’s show starts to curdle.
Master Harvey (Nick Haverson) breaks free from his wooden framework and paces frantically across the front stage, manically arguing Punch’s case. ‘Murder, murder, murder!’ he screams and, in pointing out its ubiquity, tries to diminish its importance. When he asks the Judge – and us – to take a closer look at Punch, a massive papier-mâché Punch appears at another window, freakishly scaled up. It is very funny but is also one of many jolting shifts in scale, that remind us that perhaps Punch – often lifesize - isn’t just a puppet after all.
But Punch is not released and is, instead, chucked into the depths of Hell. Hell, in the land of puppets, is a world piled up with discarded wooden limbs; ‘They’re the ones we don’t use anymore, Punch’. They are also fantastically fucked-up creatures. A puppet with a penis for a head lurches, lazily, towards Punch. It’s an absurd image, like a Dali painting that’s learned to walk, but it is affecting and frightening too. Puppets might not have souls but, by God, do some of them look evil.
As Punch attempts to outwit the devil and escape his penis prison, the two puppet masters become embroiled in his world and the divide between puppet and human blurs. Harvey and Hovey (Rob Thirtle) burst onto stage, wearing huge Punch-heads and chase each other’s tales. For one frightening flash, lifesize versions of Punch’s murdered family appear on stage. The dead come back to life and the puppets start to out-grow the humans. Finally, Harvey and Hovey appear as golden knights (earlier on represented as puppets) and stab each other to death. Only Punch remains and that, perhaps, is how it should be. He will, after all, outlive us all.