The strange creature that stands before us – half puppet, half man – with its balding, bearded human face and its spongy soft-toy body, is wearing the stereotypical uniform of the pervert: a stained beige gabardine. An actor controls his arms and his legs, and it’s not a completely inhuman being that we see up on the stage, with his adult head at odds with his child-sized puppet body.
As he unbuttons his coat and rubs his felt nipples, we notice a soft, small cock hanging sadly below. This distinctive comic-book aesthetic has a strange potency, it’s hard to look away, much as you might want to; the subject matter is similarly crude yet compelling.
Vox Motus’s devised piece, Slick – performed here as part of the Manipulate Festival – is a darkly satiric puppet show about greed and exploitation which was awarded a Fringe First in 2008.
The production is set in an Edinburgh flat where the neglectful parents of 10 year old Malky struggle to make ends meet, their businesses having hit rock bottom. When they discover their toilet is uncontrollably belching crude oil, they spot a potential for profit. After sending their son off to the local oil refinery on his skateboard, they try and keep the money for themselves, concealing the news from their creepy, paedophile landlord, Jerko – the unnerving man-puppet from the opening of the show – and his elderly mother, Mrs. Dreich.
The chosen visual style allows for a heightened portrayal of the world of the characters. The cast don’t just bring the puppets to life, they inhabit the characters, with James Young as the naive and trusting Malky a particular highlight. The way that the performers manipulate the limbs of each other’s characters is lovely to watch, amazing in its effortlessness, and eventually you stop seeing them, as the puppets take on a life of their own. The set transitions are another highlight, as the sets are produced from two large black boxes before being folded away again with ease; this gives the production a living pop-up book feel. This fast-paced, almost disposable approach to the design of the piece chimes with the content of the show, full as it is of throwaway gags about Botox injections and toilet humour.
While delivery is slick as the title of the piece, the writing isn’t always quite as sharp. Some of the satirical elements of the production, with its farcical scenes of families feuding, feel fairly superficial and its targets are all quite easy to hit. While the exploitation of Malky is interesting (“Go into Care? Care? That sounds nice”) there is a feeling that the piece could have dug deeper into the politics of the world it presents. While a few modern references have been shoe-horned in, little seems to have done with the production since 2008, and these new additions are never fully engaged with, resulting in a satire that’s oddly lacking in anger or heat.
The beauty of a devised piece like this is surely its ability to grow over time, for its politics to remain current as it repackages itself to reflect contemporary social situations in a dynamic or challenging way. Unfortunately the characters never transcend caricature. The audience wait for that moment where the tone of the laughter shifts and becomes something more uncomfortable, more charged, as the humanity of these grotesque figures asserts itself, as they become all too real and recognisable, but this point never comes.
That said, there is much to enjoy in Vox Motus’s distinctive production; it remains a deliciously dirty show, with a powerful aesthetic and a deep seam of crude humour which is worth digging for.