Full Beam Visual Theatre’s My Baby Just Cares for Me is a compact treasure-trove of a show. The company deftly works together skilful puppetry and a tight concise script with some excellent performances. This coupled with just the right amount of narrative-enhancing projections and lighting effects creates a show that is taut and arresting, a winning combination of humour, poignancy, and pure joy.
A touring two-hander with a scaffold-and-boxes set, the show looks at the relationship between a young woman and her father, who is unusually clumsy as the show begins, occasionally forgetting things and sometimes behaving a little oddly. We watch, as helpless as his daughter Catherine (a graceful, thought-provoking Peta Dennis), as he puts milk into the kettle, gets defensive about a pile of bills that he’s neglected to pay, muddles his words. He’s a giant muppet-like puppet with straggly hair, flared trousers and a messily-tyed sling around an arm that has probably been injured during a similar incident to the one we are party to when he tries to do a bit of one-armed wallpapering. The puppet is perfect – bigger than Catherine, emphasising the father-daughter relationship, a loping, haphazard and appealing character who loves his 60s vinyl, which is chucked all over the floor amongst the scattered bills. Adam Fuller is a wonderful puppeteer inasmuch as we never notice him, and I fully believe in ‘dad’ every second that Fuller is holding him during the one hour performance.
As the show progresses, giant ‘dad’ is replaced by a puppet a little smaller than Catherine – a stooped and more haggard model whose shirt isn’t buttoned straight and whose features are more roughly hewn, allowing him a vacant expression when at rest, quick to become cross with the cock of his head, and with the occasional moment of clarity seeming to shine in his beady little eyes. At the end of the show, a final ‘dad’ puppet is tiny – as if he’s hardly there at all, he is long and wispy, vacillating between an angry, stubborn little presence and a shadow.
Peta Dennis is charming, funny and expressive as Catherine; a sweet, realistic character who’s as exasperated with her father’s behaviour as she is terrified by what is happening. She doesn’t speak directly to him, which makes the relationship between human and puppet very smooth, and contributes to a believable father-daughter relationship. Nevertheless you always know exactly what she is thinking. She speaks when on the phone, and texts – her sparse messages to and from contacts in the outside world are projected on two small screens, which also show super-8 films of dad and Catherine when she was a child, he a younger (human) model of the original puppet we see, with long blonde hair, brown flares, waistcoat and shiny Morris Minor. As her father’s dementia becomes more pronounced and she is forced to stay in his house and care for him, simple aerial routines involving the scaffolding structure and a ladder seem to represent her need to escape, her strength, the precariousness of the situation.
There are moments in this show that make you laugh out loud, and moments that make you cry. There’s a dance-in-your-seat soundtrack, and a lightness and playfulness in delivery that means that something that could be heart-breaking offers as much happiness and hope as it does sadness. It is five years since the company began work on the piece and the time spent on devising, editing, reworking and thinking have clearly paid off.