Hark! The combined forces of Kneehigh and Little Angel Theatre have produced a puppet show that is visually bewitching, narratively captivating and delivered with humour and compassion.
Embellishing a short story by Gabriel García Márquez with all the imagination and colour such a writer deserves, A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings plots the reaction of a quaintly anachronistic and desperate village when a miraculous angel-like being falls to earth.
In the wake of a devastating plague of crabs, our titular creature bursts onto the stage. His moves are frantic, and he powers desperately around the stage like a garden bird trapped in a kitchen. Swept along by his forceful struggle and clinging helplessly to his wings are two struggling puppeteers. The noise here is outstanding, as dry and fragile wings rustle against the storm.
The tempest calms and the very old man settles, spent. Like the depressed town around him, the angel resigns himself to being grey, tatty and melancholic — but while he may lie mournfully, the mysterious creature has a transformative influence over the community.
Immediately the crabs retreat. More remarkably, just by being in the presence of this outsider, an adorable boy is cured of his life-threatening illness. Now freed of their crustacean-killing obligations, the townspeople seek a new enterprise, and selling miracles for a mere “5 Tups” each seems like a lucrative scheme.
The Biblical allusions are clear. Here, after all, is a self-sacrificing miracle-worker who confronts doubt before being publicly displayed with his wings outstretched. But, throughout the production, the haughty Father Gonzaga delivers absurdist incantations in a dry monotone as if to mock institutional judgements, and this production carries a message that is far more timeless than the Gospel: We should work to repay, not drain, those who show us kindness.
That said, this piece is not short of visual gags and silliness, and its collection of flawlessly crafted puppets is transformed into a crowd of brilliant characters thanks to the inventive vocal talents of the four puppeteers. And so we meet the man who can only walk backwards, an elderly woman whose ideas rise like waves in her inarticulate mumbles and a banker who, with the use of a balloon embedded in his body, provides a novel interpretation of ‘inflation’.
Delivered with the worldly, contemplative quality that makes Little Angel Theatre’s puppets the beautiful things they are, together with the nostalgic flair that is characteristic of Kneehigh, this production’s celebrations are delivered with bunting, cake-stands and ingeniously animated variety performances. Yet while the transformation from gloom to celebration runs right through the very centre of this tale, there’s a subtler message here that exposes a gentle moral side. In short, a joyous production rooted in an imperfect world of broken dreams and greed.