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Review Round-up: NT Pins Hopes on Second Horse

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South African puppeteers Handspring are already well represented in London under the National Theatre banner, with their First World War tale War Horse still doing brisk business a year and a half after it opened at the New London Theatre, as the National boasted in its annual report, which was published on Wednesday (6 October 2010).

Returning to the South Bank monolith with an autobiographical play, Or You Could Kiss Me combines writing and direction from Neil Bartlett with the partly imagined life stories of Handspring's founders Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, who we see growing old together in the year 2036.

Or You Could Kiss Me opened in the NT Cottesloe on 5 October (previews from 28 September) where it continues until 18 November 2010.

Could the South African puppeteers capture the movements of two old men, recreating the magic which has attracted so many to War Horse?

  • Andrew Girvan on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - "Set in the South Africa of 2036. The story of gay lovers who have spent their lives together since meeting as teenagers, we see stories from the lives of Handspring's founders Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler littered through Neil Bartlett's script ... A young Mr B's initial dive into the "water" of the Cottesloe stands apart as a moment of magical puppetry ... The piece struggles to find a clear narrative, with Adjoa Andoh making a strong attempt to keep things on track as the omnipotent authority figures ... Bartlett's script captures a deeply human relationship, which would have succeeded if delivered by actors or the beautiful crafted puppets, which were at times left feeling empty and slightly lifeless ... What this play does accomplish is an exploration of the emotional damage that necessities such as wills can inflict on a relationship when the end becomes apparent."

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) - "It was with high hopes that I made my way to the National, where the Handspring Puppet Company, who were responsible for the amazing animals in War Horse, have come up with a new show in tandem with that most idiosyncratic of writer/directors, Neil Bartlett. What a terrible dud it proves ... Bartlett’s scenario... moves forward in time to the year 2036, when both men are in their eighties and one of them is dying from emphysema, though heroically still chugging away on his cigarettes and quaffing brandy ... There is something curiously cumbersome about the puppets... and a dismaying lack of detail in the writing... Bartlett’s production also includes a long medical lecture on different forms of memory loss, and bleeding chunks of Ovid’s Metamorphoses describing the death and transformation of another loving couple, Philemon and Baucis. The rich and moving writing here, in a splendid 16th-century English translation, completely outshines everything else in this unexpectedly dull and disappointing show."

  • Libby Purves in The Times (three stars) - "The couple have lived together 67 years. It is nearly over ... For what this strange piece represents — apart from subtle genius in the puppeteering art — is a personal meditation on long partnerships which must look back at their beginnings and forward to decay ... The human pair look back through their puppet avatars at the difficulties and glories of youth, and forward to their coming decline. There are moments of drama: the two old men in bed suddenly haunted by their younger selves ... Through the stern narrator we accept that a shared past becomes frail as memory decays. We see thwarted longing for the old comfort of a kiss, and sad dangling old genitalia beneath the dressing-gown. It has its brilliance: in artistry, in the core idea of pausing in the middle of life’s journey to look both ways... Not perfect though: the emotional shape is wavering, and there is little memorable dialogue. Still, this human puppetry is an adventure worth undertaking. The National should do more.

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - "This show, jointly created by Neil Bartlett and the Handspring Company, takes us into new territory: the story of a gay relationship told through puppetry and narration. Much as I admired the formidable skill, it only momentarily tampered with my emotions ... The story flashes back to their life together in the 1970s: we see them swim, play squash, and go on nervous dates, before finally achieving the longed-for consummation in the course of a coastal night drive ... The question is: what does the story gain by being told by near lifesize wooden puppets? It slows down time, emphasises the particularity of each moment, and shows the dramatic power of silence ... At other times, the piece feels like a clinical demonstration of the hazards of old age ... Even Bartlett's use of Ovid's Philemon and Baucis story as a framing device to illustrate marital devotion feels like an self-conscious attempt to lend the story a high classical tone. For much of the evening I watched in detached admiration ... Rae Smith's traverse stage and Christopher Shutt's sound score... also impress. But while dazzled by the technical finesse, I began to crave... the spontaneous combustion created by the presence of living actors.

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) - "There’s one crucial similarity with War Horse, and that’s the supremacy of the exquisitely articulated puppets... manipulated with such tenderness by the ensemble it’s as if they’re fellow cast members ... The wrinkled puppet face of defiantly upright Mr A, as he looks on his emphysema-wracked partner of 67 years, is unbearably moving. As a meditation on ageing and the pain of losing a loved one, writer/director Neil Bartlett ... creates some overwhelmingly affecting moments, as the men grapple with the financial, legal and emotional aspects of wrapping up a life together. Elsewhere, though, there’s a frustrating sense of missed opportunity as the narrative wafts ... We learn precious little of this extraordinarily long partnership... but hear lots we could have lived without from Adjoa Andoh as an omnipurpose MC ... The humans might do all the talking, but it’s the puppets who have all the answers here."

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) - " They are playing with puppets again at the National... This time the puppets are two old homosexuals in South Africa, living their last days and contemplating their 67 years of love. The show is on a smaller scale than War Horse, but the artistic brilliance is almost as great ... Neil Bartlett's story is touching but a little precious in places. It aspires for classical resonance, being topped and tailed by allusions to Ancient Greece ... To watch the puppets is, however, to be transported to a realm where you quickly see those constructions of wood and string become breathing beings ... Their very eye sockets seem to acquire a humanity ... The puppeteers just seem to melt away. Fantastic moment. It's not as epic as War Horse and there is some unnecessary bad language. But the artistry here is of a high order.
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