Disney may have swiped The Muppets, Big Bird and the gang may have partitioned off Sesame Street, but the Jim Henson workshop still has a hand in the felt trade, and this tight as a tiger hour of puppet improv is pretty much a masterclass. Even if you’re of the opinion that improv comedy groups exist in some kind of malicious double-act with acca-da-fucking-capella, you’re not going to leave Puppet Up! feeling anything other than giggly.
It’s possibly an unfair cliche that UK improv comics lag behind their American counterparts, but this show is a pretty strong evidence in its favour. This is live comedy improv meets puppetry, and the cast are killer at both. There are two simultaneous shows to switch your attention between, with the performers twisting across the stage, puppets raised above their heads, and video monitors projecting a ‘TV-ified’ version of the show that demonstrates the puppeteers savant-level skills at keeping their asses out of the frame.
The show consists of pacey sketches culled loosely from audience suggestions. Performers pick their puppet muses before the suggestions land, so goats and crabs end up debating interstellar travel and a squirrel gets up to all sorts of obscene business. It’s billed as a blue show, but though there are routines such as an orgy of dogging hot-dogs that would probably play poorly with the pre-school crowd, the emphasis is on mayhem rather than smut. It’s a far cry from Meet the Feebles, with much of the fun coming from watching recognisably Henson (but not recognisable) puppets just shooting the shit about everyday topics. The puppets are beautiful Henson creations, with personalities that blaze out even when manipulated by a hapless audience member.
The performers are sabre-sharp, and there’s barely a moment of hesitation or a single dropped gag in the entire show. They’re generous and cohesive improvisors, and it’s easy to trust that each scene will close with a doozy. There’s a sardonic New York tone to the scenarios and characters, in line with the playfully edgy work Henson himself created in much of the Muppet Show.
Henson is more directly present here in two touching interludes that see a pair of superb early routines, including the jazzy caterpillar jive ‘Java’, which the master wrote in his early 20’s. They’re gems of puppetry, and performed with obvious love and reverence. They’re reminders that this rude and raucous evening of puppet lewdery is a continuation of Henson’s slyly anarchic tradition, not a travesty of it or a street-wise subversion.