The Shop of Little Horrors by Pickled Image
Watched by Ellen Waddell at Tobacco Factory Theatre on 5th November 2013
My worry is that you will skim read this, looking for a few choice adjectives and paying bare intention to the central message, so I am going to start with a spoiler. I have not enjoyed a piece of theatre as much as Pickled Images ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ in a long time, not since their puppeteer spin on the Grey Gardens documentary ‘Little Edie,’ and I implore you to see it. It is on at The Tobacco Factory until Saturday.
The play focuses on puppet maker and gentle loner Albert Grimlake who spends his days talking to his ‘mother,’ a woman who is petrifying in her sternness. And the fact she is a ventriloquist puppet. The pair play ‘guess the horror film’ amongst other dead eyed dolls in his dilapidated workshop, a macabre puppet surgery filled with eyeballs in jars, loose wires and a cellar you really don’t want to go into. Grimlake, played by Dik Downey, is a child’s imagining of a northern elderly gent, his over exaggerated features created by bulbous prosthetics and wigs. This serves to make him strangely loveable despite his questionable behaviour during the play. He seeks an apprentice to carry on his empire and reluctantly agrees to take on Eric, an upbeat Muppet loving adolescent whom he warms to, despite himself. Eric, played by Adam Blake, manages to form a humorous but unlikely friendship with Grimlake, but also serves to highlight the modernisation of the art of puppet making; how the trends have shifted away from the realism of the puppet to something altogether more furry and abstract. The artistry and delicacy of the ventriloquist puppets are impressive, and as more and more get unveiled you are drawn to them, especially when compared to the tacky looking ‘Boo’ Muppet initially created by Eric. Perhaps they are misunderstood and are not as horrific and terrifying as you first imagine, much like Albert. But then again, ventriloquist dolls with eyes that move around when no one is operating them? Perhaps not.
The show plays like an old fashioned thriller, working on tension and good directing rather then obvious scares and it is almost disturbing in its ingenuity, especially when it comes to the set. It may seem in disarray but every hole in the wall or battered suitcases has a purpose, with items being manipulated by the actors to create a set within a set. The two central performances are exceptionally strong, both humorous and dark, with the actors doubling up as other visitors to the shop disguised with more and more outlandish prosthetics. When we reach the reveal, and the awful truth is discovered, the boundaries of absurdity are pushed with the most bizarre game of cat and mouse I have ever seen. These bouts of surrealism take the edge of the play so it is much more then a simple horror tale, or indeed something far more disturbing. Pickled Image creates a world in which you wonder whether we will laugh, cry or scream in the next second and I adored it.