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A young girl runs screaming into a book-lined room occupied by an old man, who sits, slumped, in a wheelchair. We don't quite know who or what the girl is fleeing, but there's a post-apocalyptic feel to her ragged clothes and the general disrepair of the room, in which a gnarled apple-tree also grows.
So begins The Harbinger at La Boite Theatre , written and directed by David Morton and Matthew Ryan. Over the next hour-and-half, we learn that the girl is a refugee from the streets of a failed city, while the old man is a refugee from a much more personal crisis, stranded in the midst of urban decay.
Unable to force the girl from his crumbling home, he reluctantly forms a relationship of sorts with her. The evolution of that relationship – from cruelty to a final, weary acceptance – is one of the play's key threads.
It's made more poignant by the fact that the old man is played by a much-larger-than-life puppet, whose gaunt frame both dwarfs the girl and convincingly portrays the physical failings that often characterise old age.
Another narrative thread is woven using stories that emerge from the books that litter the room. With the aid of three black-clad Victorian handmaidens, smaller puppets and props rise magically from a series of trunks to act out these 'stories within a story'. It's not long before the audience realises that these often enchanting tableaux are more than fairytales.
I enjoyed many aspects of The Harbinger. I liked the boldness of the oversized 'Old Man' figure, and the crow-like presence of the three sombre handmaidens (Giema Contini, Niki-J Price and Anna Straker), who manoeuvred the large puppet and brought the fairytales to life with humour and skill.
I also warmed to actress Kathleen Iron, who drew me in and earned my respect and sympathy as the feisty, abandoned girl. This was no mean feat – I generally find adults playing children annoying, unconvincing, or both. Costumes (Noni Harrison), lighting (Whitney Eglington) and production design (David Morton) were also strong.
On the other hand, I found the delivery of the old man's dialogue less successful. Actress Barbara Lowing (positioned behind the puppet's head) did a creditable job as the voice, imbuing the old man's words with the requisite light and shade. However, the limitations of the puppet's face often left me looking at Lowing rather than the 'old man' himself, making it difficult to lose myself in the overall performance. And perhaps a male voice would have been more convincing.
I also found few surprises as the first fairytales unfolded, and was concerned that the narrative seemed to be treading what has become a familiar path in tales about curmudgeonly old men in their regretful old age. Thankfully, the story took some unpredictable twists a little further in, which kept me intrigued and guessing.
The show also contained some moments of great beauty. When the girl wraps herself in the old man's giant hands, the audience feels her longing for love. And when he leans back against the apple tree and closes his eyes, the fragility of his giant face is strangely life-like.
A little bit steampunk and a lot modern fairytale, The Harbinger is a dark and interesting puppet-show for adults. This moody production finishes on 1 September, so book soon if you want to experience it.
Oh, and if you're curious about the title, you'll need to see the play yourself and listen very carefully ...