Five years ago, Caroline Williams nursed a baby owl called Puffball back to health. Puffball the show is sort of about saving an owl and sort of about saving yourself; it has music and animation and a lot of facts about everyone’s favourite nocturnal bird. Coming in at less than an hour, it’s a ramshackle nugget of theatre, very charming but also, equally, just a little lost.
Aided by her pianist Ed Dowie, who has composed some lovely musical accompaniment for the piece, Williams’ show is a hotchpotch of different stylistic choices. Poetic sections from Puffball the owl’s own perspective jostle for space with more cheery audience addresses from the pair, about the club they have since founded in order to learn as much about owls as possible. Their sweetly passionate enthusiasm makes these sequences some of the piece’s most enjoyable, and Williams proves herself a disarming performer, brimming with awkward charm.
If I’ve made Puffball sound light and fluffy, that’s not the case; though those with an intense suspicion of whimsy, may well find things to dislike here, there’s a thin cord of bleak self-awareness running through the whole thing that keeps it feeling interesting and nuanced. As Puffball’s damaged wing begins to heal, his re-learning of how to interact with the world after a long convalescence becomes the deeply personal story of Williams’ own battle with depression.
It’s done subtly, always with great care, and Williams never labours her point on this topic. As an examination of the experience of suffering from a mental illness, Puffball employs a great lightness of touch while managing to steer clear of euphemism – which is no mean feat. It isn’t easy, in fact, to be exactly sure at which moment Williams stops talking about the owl and starts talking about herself – although when she tells us that doctors tested Puffball’s thyroid before sending in a therapist to observe him, it’s pretty clear we’re no longer residing solely in the land of owl-based whimsy anymore.
Though Puffball is accomplished and there are some moments of real beauty here – thanks to Williams’ writing and performance both, not to mention Dowie’s compositions – it does at times feel as though the idea is stretched a little thin, even for this short show. Some of the experimental elements feel really innovative: for instance, when Williams, accompanied by Look Around You-style music, constructs an owl pellet in a wicker basket to help us understand what goes in and comes out. But other moments are less successful. When every audience member is given home-made owl goggles in order to experience their tunnel vision, and asked to flap their wings and so on, it doesn’t feel quite earned by the narrative and has an air of forced fun.
The fun, nerdy, Owl Fact side of proceedings is phased out midway through, so that by the end you find yourself half missing it, half wondering why it was ever there at all. Indeed, there are moments and concepts in Puffball that feel deeply considered and others that feel just a little bit, dare I say, just there for the sake of it – almost experimental-by-numbers. Perhaps the movement away from the jollity of the first half is a deliberate shift, an attempt to highlight the distance of the show’s premise from its true content, but it does make the piece as a whole tonally uneven.
Puffball still feels a little bit like a work in progress – which is a shame, because I’m not sure that’s what it is. But perhaps writer-performer Williams, like Puffball himself, needs just a little more time and patience before she is ready to spread her wings.