When a haggard, frail man with sweeping grey wings, grizzled whiskers and glinting eyes crashes to the ground in a small village by the coast, he is pronounced an angel by the villagers. After all, everybody loves a miracle. Caught up by the temptations of international fame, expensive cocktails and satellite TV, for the villagers he heralds nothing but a source of income.
Touching his wings cures a fantastically Márquezian array of bizarre ailments, from compulsive itches to totally back-to-front bodies (‘a woman turned his head and he’s been looking back ever since’), which are explored in all their grotesque physicality by a wonderfully diverse cast of puppets. But when the coach-loads of pilgrims and tourists trundle off, leaving the village so quiet you can hear the cockroaches whispering, the old man takes to the rooftops with the one little boy who saw through the village’s greed, never to be seen again.
The production is the lovechild of the Little Angel Theatre and Kneehigh, and with extra cachet (if they needed it) from Gabriel García Márquez, expectations were high as to the combination of magical simplicity and tenderness that characterises the work of all three creators. These theatre-makers are renowned for creating performances that speak to audiences of all ages in a rich visual vocabulary accessible to all, without losing the emotional complexity and quality of their form. But this production struggled to distil its fable and its imagery without reducing them, and although there were some spine-tingling moments (particularly between the little boy and the old man), the liveness and credibility of the puppets was often lost in a lack of physical precision, and Márquez’s nuanced and surreal characterisation risked cliché.
Despite this, the company did well to find paired-down physical signatures for a very large collection of characters: the use of springs in the crabs’ joints captured the essence of their nervous scuttle, and the Bank Manager’s ballooning stomach gave a new meaning to the word inflation. Amongst the puppeteers, Roger Lade stood out in offering some of the most sensitive – but also some of the most hilarious – moments of the performance.
Indisputably, though, the winged man himself was the star of the show; the brilliantly evocative sound of his feathers alone was enough to spark the imagination, and the attention paid to the angular, brittle movements of his wings and skeletal body brought him entirely to life. Gingerly stretching out his enormous wings inside his cage, he reminded me of the expansiveness that was somewhat wanting – perhaps more time spent with the character in his mysterious rooftop world would have elevated the performance to the level of poignancy and wonder I’d expected to discover.