Review: Fun is a serious business

24 March 2016

by Steph Young

When I read about The Toyland Murders in the NSDF programme, my heart did a tiny little jump for joy. Over the past few years, I have developed a fondness for puppet theatre, so my hopes for Nottingham New Theatre’s pint-sized, film noir style offering were high.

It is Tuesday evening. I enter the venue to the sound of 1940s swing music, feeling optimistic already. My neighbour in the audience murmurs, "I hope they are really sarcastic puppets’. My little jumping heart stops for a moment, struck by the thought that the creatures I had envisaged might be cynical, tainted by adulthood, that they might even… curse. Happily, my neighbour was wrong, and within minutes of the show beginning he was giggling like a five-year-old. This is the overarching strength of The Toyland Murders: the ability to arouse in its adult audience a genuine childish glee that renders them wide-eyed from beginning to end.

The plot follows Inspector Carmen McGraw and sidekick Deputy Harvey B. Feltz (a ragdoll and a teddy respectively) as they attempt to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious murders in downtown Toyland. It sounds pretty simple, so what had me so utterly captivated? Well, the script is littered with amusingly self-indulgent puns, the skilled puppeteers nail the character voices and comic timing, and there is impressive attention to detail: in keeping with the childhood concept, the crime scenes are drawn on chalk boards and when Deputy Feltz is captured he is tied up with a skipping rope I am fairly sure I owned when I was seven.

With just a couple of flats, a few core lighting settings, and punchy performances from the ensemble, Toyland comes to life before our eyes. It isn’t fussy. It’s the kind of theatre you can pack up in a (toy) box and take nearly anywhere.

Being able to see both the button-eyed puppet and the actor manipulating it allowed for many a meta-theatrical (or perhaps that’s meta-meta-theatrical) moment. Actor and puppet are totally synchronised: when McGraw cocks his head suspiciously, so too does Amy Brough-Akin. I wonder whether it is by the puppet or the actor that the audience are charmed. I certainly felt emotionally invested in the small felt creatures: I cared desperately about the state of McGraw’s reputation on the force, I empathised with Feltz’s inner turmoil about being a good deputy, and I actually feared for both of their lives (regardless of the fact that they don’t have organs… or legs for that matter). It is an interesting thought. With the help of Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, the RSC will see Ariel created on stage using performance capture technology in The Tempest later this year. Like in Toyland, the audience’s relationship to the actor will be experienced at one remove. Might this somehow diminish the status of the actor at the cost of being innovative? I’m not sure. But if the result is great storytelling, I’m not too worried.

For me, The Toyland Murders is perhaps the most important piece of theatre I’ve seen at NSDF, despite its apparently non-serious subject matter. To make theatre is essentially to play; think of the cast of Toyland as toddlers and those at RSC and Intel as the teenage gamers. However old we are, whatever theatrical form in which we choose to work, it is imperative that we continue to play, to imagine, and to tell stories.