Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★
The Edinburgh Fringe is guilty of many things, but conventionality is not one of them. It’s one of the only points in time and space where a musical sporting a cast of actual real life I-kid-you-not taxidermy animal puppets could be conceived of. But, look, it’s happened, so let’s all try to stay with it. Yes, it is grotesque, but this post-mortem cabaret is not all it appears to be, and is in any event a daring new musical theatre debut written by taxidermy performance artist Charlie Tuesday Gates and performed by The Vaults Waterloo-based company with gusto.
Led down the garden path by a series of perversely apt animal-based theme tunes, we discover the Underdog, a little trophy pug shunned by his self-absorbed owner and forced beyond the safety of the patio, into the jaws of an undead cabaret troupe. One by one, the animals introduce their acts, and here the real statement of the show comes into play. Badger, the ‘luvvie’ leader of the troupe gives us a sickening rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang’ , set to the lyrical theme of badger culling.
There’s also SplatCat – a wheelie bin dumped hit-and run victim; The Greytones – a racially charged barbershop group consisting of three American grey squirrels to one Celtic red; three plucked, water-pumped chickens offering themselves up to a rousing cover of Britney’s ‘Slave 4 U’, and one unforgettable mink striptease, leaving the audience in no doubt of the show’s underlying assertions. “You think this is offensive? Try being an animal in this world!”
The show culminates in a rodent-based turning of the tables which will linger in the memory for some time. The narrative takes a little too long to get going, and it is difficult not to be put off by the increasingly grim state of the puppets, but we are rewarded for staying with it.
The musical arrangements and original numbers sparkle, cleverly ducking and diving between amusement and pathos, and the cast does an admirable job to slip between roles and voices, notably Madeline MacMahon, zipping between roles with sharp attention to detail. The band is also pitch-perfect, handling the twists and turns of musical variety with ease. The performers all sing well, though amplification is to be recommended with a live band, as voices do have an edge of tiredness about them.
Problems mainly arise, however, with the nature of the puppets. These are not objects designed to communicate, nor have they been effectively re-purposed, and as such the actors have had a tough job to deliver life back into the pelts. Valiant efforts are made, in particular by Matthew Maguire and his eager, shivering Underdog, but the other animals are frustratingly unbelievable in their movements and breath. The animals have been given new google-eyes which remove the points of focus so essential to a puppet’s magic.
The resounding effect is a conflicting but impressive show which makes a clever political statement, but whose narrative and puppetry could do with a little more imagination to lift it into the realms of those shows where ethics and storytelling intertwine seamlessly. What can we expect next?!