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View Article  Ronnie Burkett - Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy

Billy Twinkle – Requiem for a Golden Boy

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes


Warwick Arts Centre Coventry– 25th April 2009



The first thing that struck me at Warwick Arts Centre last night was that I was sitting in the main theatre with a large crowd of people waiting to see a puppeteer, and yet as far as I could tell the large audience included very few puppeteers.  Ronnie Burkett has reached the point where he has a wide following and can command centre stage at major venues around the world with an artform that is all too often to be found on the fringes.  That is why is has come to be regarded as the ‘golden boy’. 


Requiem for a Golden Boy is a very personal piece of theatre. It is very much about Ronnie Burkett himself.  I suspect there are those who would have liked to have seen slightly less contemplation of self and a little more emphasis on up front puppetry.  I was not one of them. If a poet, a novelist, a songwriter or a painter is allowed to be self contemplating, why not a puppeteer?  This was a piece of theatre that was more than a ‘puppet show’. It was clearly meant to be all about the interplay between manipulator and puppet and it would be silly to see it as anything else. (That said if you just put together the pure puppetry bits you would have show that would leave almost any other puppet show on the planet in the shade). 


This was a non-stop solo performance of nearly two hours that filled a main stage with perhaps thirty puppets played at incredible pace.  Words like ‘tour de force’ and ‘virtuoso’ are entirely appropriate.  All of that in itself makes the show well worth seeing.  However for me there was something much more interesting than technical brilliance going on here.


As the golden boy looks back over his life so far Ronnie himself is very often the centre of attention not only as represented by marionettes of himself but also with himself as a performer in his own right. He exposes himself to a process of emotional dissection. This could be a bit superficial but Burkett’s brutal honesty takes it beyond that. It is challenging and at times hard to watch.  The real brilliance of the show was not the puppetry manipulation itself but the way the palpable energy of the show was bounced was bounced from puppet to puppet and from puppet to manipulator and back again in a continuous, incredibly skilled, and meaningful game of emotional ping pong.


Although often very funny – I wept with laughter at the Jesus puppet sequence - it is also disturbing and raw. The wit is often biting and brash. Despite this the show is also highly intelligent and thought provoking and although very personal touches on deep and universal themes and in particular the meaning of success. This is not just clever performance but clever writing and the overall dramatic structure is very carefully crafted to deliver overall integrity. We should also remember that Ronnie has crafted all of the wonderfully character-full marionettes that populate the piece.


The fast pace often verges on the manic which takes a bit of adjusting to, especially for restrained English audiences.  The language and the performance style were very ‘in your face’. However the most powerful moments were the quiet times when all the energy was with and between puppets as they paused with perfect timing for a few seconds of poignancy.  Perhaps such gentle times were all the more telling as a contrast to the rapid fire delivery of most of the show.


We often talk about cutting edge theatre and expanding the boundaries. This is a bold attempt to really explore possibilities of theatre involving puppets.  For me it succeeded.  The show finished with strong applause and several curtain calls.  I was more than happy to applaud a man with a very special, if idiosyncratic role, in the wide spectrum of puppetry who is prepared to do something dangerous.




View Article  His Dark Materials at Birmingham Rep

I recently went to see His Dark Materials (part two) at Birmingham Rep.  It really should be called His Dull Materials. This is not so much a production with ideas that failed as a production with no ideas at all.  I can't believe that an organisation of this size can take on a production like this without having some artistic vision of how to bring something so complex to the stage.  It barely rose above the level of the average school play. In fact, putting aside production values, I have seen many a school play that was better than this. At times it seemed to be simply embarrassingly bad. I presume the fault lies with the directors (I believe it was co-directed). It felt to me as if they were hopelessly out of their depth. I know this show is packing them in (off the back of a famous books) but I could see little merit in it.  Of course I went because of the puppetry, for which the very capable Blind Summit have been enlisted.  Here there was some good design and much potential, but in the context of the whole show I found that the puppetry quickly became surprisingly irritating.  The puppets looked about and walked about very nicely (although extremely repetitively) but they were not used to any significant effect; and when and where they were used seemed rather random.  The opportunity for a huge leap to somewhere much more exciting seemed to have been missed.  Good puppetry could have been the saving grace here, but I suspect the directors simply had no concept of the potential available to them and used the puppets in a fairly mundane and obvious manner.  The possible exception was the bears which did have some impact, but even this was lost as the whole production plodded along at the same pace with actors standing about talking lots of lines trying to cover an impossible amount of plot.  I felt sorry for the puppeteers and the actors.  Several members of the audiences left during the slow course of the evening. Most of us stuck it out for the whole tedious 3 hours.  Some people made the mistake of watching parts one and two on the same day.  The phrase 'gluttons for punishment' springs to mind.  I  guess that the sell out audience probably included a lot of fans of the books who think this kind of production is an acceptable substitute for real drama.  I wasn't one of them.