I am in the Barbican Pit surrounded by open plastic crates full of Punch puppets and masks. In front of me, their designer and maker, Julian Crouch, is showing me how they work. But although he is talking to me, I am not the focus of his attention. He looks fascinated as he demonstrates one puppet’s punching mechanism; staring intently at the miniature figure as if encountering it for the first time. When he pulls on a giant-sized Punch mask, I can’t help but step away from him. Something about this distorted, grinning visage makes me want to hide under my bed. Taking it off, he smiles and acknowledges: “I don’t get to play with these very often.”
These beautifully sinister creations belong to the latest show by Crouch and his award-winning performance company, Improbable. The Devil & Mister Punch is inspired by the enduringly popular puppet, whose cultural migration has taken him from sixteenth-century Italy to the British seaside. Starting life as a manifestation of misrule in Commedia dell-arte, he has travelled oceans, changed from Sicilian marionette to glove-puppet, downsized from a tent to a booth, gained a wife, lost a mistress and battled crocodiles, the law and the Devil on his way to becoming one of the iconic figures of knockabout comedy. He doesn’t follow a script, will perform anywhere and respects no one, delighting audiences by mocking them as they laugh at his slapstick and obsession with sausages.
Crouch’s devised piece, which borrows elements from throughout this long and varied history, tells the darkly surreal tale of Messrs Harvey and Hovey, a pair of jaded vaudevillians who – along with Mr Punch – are pulled into Hell and put on trial for manslaughter and crimes against creativity. Packed with the dream-like, twisted fairytale imagery that has become his trademark, Crouch says that audiences should expect “less prose, more poetry” from the story, and definitely less Judy. “She wasn’t there at the start of the Punch shows and I don’t want parents thinking they can leave their kids here and go shopping.”
Crouch’s earlier admission over a coffee in the Barbican cafe, that “when I was a kid the first thing I ever made was a Punch head,” is reflected in his evident enjoyment of puppets as an adult. But he stresses that the opening of the show in the same year as Mr Punch’s 350th ‘birthday’ (Punch’s first recorded appearance in Britain is a delighted diary entry by Samuel Pepys in May 1662 about an “Italian puppet play”) is coincidence rather than design. “The reality of these things is that you get to a point as a company where you have to decide what you’re going to do several years in advance, to get your funding.”
Mr Punch first entered Crouch’s professional life several years ago, when a film about the cackling glove puppet was on the cards. But this “fizzled away like a lot of projects do.” It wasn’t until the Barbican approached Improbable looking for a show that would have local appeal that The Devil and Mister Punch began to take shape in his head. “I pointed out to them that within a square mile of here in the eighteenth century there were something like 25 puppet shows.” He also welcomed the opportunity to return to the hands-on, intimate and experimental style of theatre-making that had motivated him to set up Improbable in the first place, frustrated by the conservatism of the UK repertory circuit.
After the transatlantic success of the company’s 70 Hill Lane and Culture Industry-produced musical Shockheaded Peter, which mixed life-sized puppets and performers in a tale based on a popular German children’s book, America came calling. Soon, he and Improbable co-founder Phelim McDermott found themselves among the bright lights of Broadway, designing and directing a multimillion-dollar stage adaptation of kooky Sixties TV series The Addams Family.