Amid the current flood of anniversaries, Improbable are throwing one more into the mix - the 350th birthday of Punch, the club-wielding puppet synonymous with pier ends and gratuitous violence.
In this tribute to one of theatre’s oldest and most enduring institutions, director Julian Crouch and his team have reimagined a pair of real-life Victorian puppet masters, Messrs Harvey and Hovey, who enact Punch’s descent to hell after he (yet again) beats his wife Judy to death and throws their baby out the window.
What he finds down there is a Chapman brothers-esque vista of discarded, part-melted puppets who haunt but eventually can’t suppress the inherently unapologetic Punch with his archly-arrogant catchphrase “that’s the way to do it!”. Even two giant penises with limbs and Mephistopheles himself are unable to keep this man down.
Around the puppetry we see Harvey and Hovey (played by the accomplished Nick Haverson and Rob Thirtle) undergoing their own surreal odyssey, one that features knights, musicians, bulls, bubbles and a cello-playing matador.
It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Punch-related material, played out in and around an exquisite puppet theatre (designed by Crouch and Thirtle with Mike Kerns) that facilitates no end of peep show trickery.
But for all its stylistic ingenuity the script is surprisingly short on laughs and is wound out longer than the story merits. Perhaps Crouch’s obvious reverance for the Punch legend has in some way stifled the storytelling, but either way the show fails to engage for the entirety.