Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, Barbican Silk Street Theatre

Review: Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy, Barbican Silk Street Theatre

Written for Culture Wars, 30.03.2009

More than any other theatrical medium, puppetry has the ability to shatter the boundaries of possibility. A well-manipulated puppet can not only reflect humanity as acceptably as any actor, but also perform feats utterly beyond the human body. One need only look towards Blind Summit’s Low Life, Complicite’s Shun-kin or Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter to recognize puppetry’s knack for flicking from the mundane to the magical and its capacity to blend metaphor and reality as one.

Ronnie Burkett’s marionettes, however, are a different breed of puppet. Sure, they evoke humanity, but they never threaten to truly uncloak its inner-life; they reflect us without revealing a great deal about us. As such, they feel strangely old-fashioned, somehow constrained by their own peculiar limitations. Controlled by sixteen strings rather than the usual nine and operable with only one hand, Burkett’s marionettes are undoubtedly complex creatures. Yet the technical mastery involved in their construction and manipulation never transforms into wizardry. Indeed, in comparison to the eloquent, expressive puppetry around today, it is the clumsiness of the marionette that shines through.

Instead, Burkett’s puppets work best when still. The detail in their faces and physiques makes them blank canvases ripe for the projection of emotion and thought. Their empty eyes seem, at times, to well with tears; their starched cheeks to flicker with amusement. This subtle capturing of humanity is the asset by which Burkett’s marionettes become the puppet-world’s answer to Strasberg’s Group Theatre.

Strange then to see such formidably convincing actor-puppets paraded in the cruise-ship cabaret of Billy Twinkle (played by, and arguably interchangeable with, Burkett himself).

Twinkle is a disillusioned marionettiste reduced to overseeing a glitzy, gag-ridden circus of strings aboard an ocean liner. Visited on the brink of suicide by a bunny-eared glove puppet of his former mentor, Sid Diamond, Twinkle resolves to tell his life’s story in search of self-worth. Thus, we see the marionette Billy manipulating his own marionettes, growing gradually older, fatter and increasingly disillusioned, but never abandoning his artform.

The thing is that Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy looks and feels like an off-off-Broadway show as pastiched by The Simpsons. Burkett channel-hops between cartoon voices to conduct conversations with himself and litters a sweet story with camp asides. Perhaps this is intentional. It certainly fits with the puppet Twinkle’s dilemma between high art and lowly entertainment: whether t’is nobler to present puppet Shakespeare or striptease. Seen in such a light, Burkett’s piece appears to focus precisely on the limitations of his material co-stars. However, the amateurism and self-indulgence never quite confirms itself as deliberate.

In fact, the highlights of the evening are the self-contained moments of entertainment, each a routine in itself: the dancing bear on roller-skates, the recreational preacher complete with singing glove-puppet Jesus and, best of all, the hobbling pensioner exposing himself to reveal a pink balloon that swells in size.

Burkett’s battle has long been to restate puppetry as an art-form for adults. Here his tactics seem along the lines of South Park or Avenue Q, simply allowing them a crudeness at odds with their cutesy exteriors. The result leaves Burkett’s marionettes looking stuck in adolescence while puppetry elsewhere has grown up and flown the nest.

4 Comments

  1. I think, on the whole, I agree with you. Having never seen Burkett’s work before, I was moved and excited by the puppets themselves to the point where I was happy to overlook the show’s oddly self-serving tone. What it left me feeling most of all I think, was sorry that I hadn’t seen some of Burkett’s earlier shows.

    The Jesus glove puppet sequence was fantastic though.

  2. I think this is the weakest of Burkett's shows (that I've seen at any rate, and I've seen the last three). However, on behalf of puppeteers everywhere I think that Burkett's work is more for adults than Avenue Q is or ever will be. This notion that puppetry has to be racy or sexy to attract an adult audience is fallacious at best and insulting at worst. Puppetry can demand our attention just as well as Shakespeare can, and doesn't have to have naked puppets to do it.

    Perhaps you would prefer Tinka's New Dress or Ten Days on Earth, which truly did move people. Perhaps you need to go out and see more puppetry, as there is wide diversity, none of it represented by either Avenue Q or South Park.

  3. I absolutely agree. I was actually quite disappointed that Burkett had gone solely in that direction. Having read about his previous work – including the two shows you mention – I was expecting something special and was sorely disappointed.

    But, yes, I do need to see more puppetry nonetheless.

  4. “stuck in adolescence”: I think that's a brilliant observation of the story itself; I'm not familiar enough with puppetry to know if it applies to the actual marionettes themselves.

    I watched the show (in Sydney, Australia) hoping to find some mid-life crisis wisdom. Instead, I feel like I found an adolescent response. I can relate to the notion of “passing on the torch” that had been earlier received, but Billy Twinkle, even in middle age, has still not grown up enough to be a mentor … and his potential new protege with his twinkly wings would no doubt find himself dealing with unresolved adolescent issues on the part of Billy, rather than the mature guidance he deserves.

    To the extent that the show is autobiographical (and how can it not be?), Ronny is allowing art to interfere with personal growth. This is not the break-through or cross-over catharsis he is really seeking, although it's a splendid effort. I'm sure that he has better things in store for us if the economics work out; and if not, what else will he do with his life, such a passion is surely difficult to transfer into a new direction?

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