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Feral (Tour - Lowry, Salford)

David Cunningham loves the ingenuity on display in the excellent Feral.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

War Horse, the recent visitor to The Lowry, demonstrated the astonishing things that can be achieved with puppets on stage.

With a considerably less lavish budget the Tortoise in a Nutshell Company set out to pursue the same goal with a much more rough and ready, but just as successful, approach.

The initial impression of Feral on entering the theatre is that of a mad scientist's laboratory. A drawing board is set centre stage under a bank of spotlights and a screen. Laptop computers, used to generate Jim Harbourne's score, and other paraphernalia are dotted around the stage.

Draughtsman Joe sets out to tell how his hometown and his family were blighted by urban redevelopment by sketching key events. We see young Joe adoring his older sister, Dawn, who volunteers to take him to the funfair only to fall out with her when she does not share his enthusiasm for a proposed new Supercade that ultimately bankrupts local businesses and leads to civil unrest.

Devised by puppeteers Alex Bird, Arran Howie and Matthew Leonard with director Ross MacKay Feral is an unusual experience. The Company acknowledge that, although the puppeteers are dressed in dark clothes against a shaded background, it is impossible to pretend the puppets are moving without their manipulation.

Instead the Company make a virtue of this limitation choosing to show the complexity of their work. The sheer craftsmanship on display is impressive. The sketches Joe makes of his life are broadcast on the screen. As the story develops Joe's colleagues construct his seaside hometown and inhabitants out of cardboard and plasticine in full view of the audience.

The puppets are not the slick animated versions with which we are familiar from, say, Nick Park's work but are reminiscent of the more stiff puppets that were used in older shows such as 'Watch with Mother'. This evocation of childhood is perfect for a show that centres on the loss of innocence.

Director Ross MacKay sets an urgent pace. Once the cityscape is constructed miniature cameras rush through the nooks and crannies creating the illusion of rapid, and at times vertiginous, speed. There is a strong sense of events moving out of control as the puppeteers smash glass and start fires on their set. The absence of any legible dialogue adds to the feeling of inarticulate rage and failure to communicate that runs through the final scenes.

Tortoise in a Nutshell Company are so justifiably proud of their work that they conclude the show by inviting the audience onstage to study the props close up and question the creators as to how the effects were achieved.

Feral is a show that celebrates not so much the magic of theatre as the sheer craft and hard work of those involved in making the shows we enjoy.