The Puppet Barge, a staple of the London puppet scene, is a glorious venue full of atmosphere and craft. Retired and collected puppets line every nook of the repurposed vessel. All of the barge space is in compact, efficient use as the diminutive stage, as seating, as displays and storage. Every inch of the barge has a purpose. String Theatre is a veteran operation, a family puppetry enterprise in the 3rd generation: these people have given this craft their whole lives.
Water Babies is based on Charles Kingsley's 1863 children's story of the same name. A different era for sure, children perhaps made of stronger stuff then. Water Babies is a story about a young chimney sweep assistant who falls into a river and drowns, only to be transformed into a "water-baby", a kind of a spirit of the water. From poverty and the brutal circumstances of Victorian England into a magical new underwater world of water nymphs, insects and schools of fish.
The production is classical puppetry, with carefully articulated marionettes operated from above by a team of three. We see action at multiple scales, parallax effects and shadow puppetry, sophisticated lighting schemes and even a first person view of sorts. We see a daring (and ultimately fatal) escape over rooftops, floating play with bubbles and creatures of the sea, and a range of metamorphoses.
The operation is generally smooth, and carefully, precisely cued by a winning orignal soundtrack. Jumping or lunging is portrayed with great skill, falling down a chimney is cleverly done, and even dextrous prop manipulation works, but the action overall falls a little short from magical. There's a musical vibe to the story and its telling, but the pace is rather slow and meditative, almost hypnotic. The emotional depth of the story is explored a little, but things are resolved quite neatly and rather disingenuously.
The puppets are OK expressive and lively, but the strings are very much there. Colours and lighting and scale see effective use. Respectful of tradition, Water Babies is a calm, polished marionette show. Partially devised, partially storyboarded into existence. Perhaps staying conservative is the radical choice here. "The minute you cut the strings, you lose control."
An analog fairy tale, a quiet spectacle for the smallest in the family. A suprisingly gentle telling of a rather bleak story, the satirical bite of which is lost in history.