Sometimes you can feel storytellers trying too hard.
Their hands tip their intention too soon. Rather than see their work as carefully structured narrative, it reads as bald manipulation.
Edinburgh-based Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral is an award-winning puppet-driven piece that has been touring since 2013. But it suffers from this kind of controlling foreshadowing which is hard to ignore in an already slight 50-minute tale.
Like American artists Manual Cinema, Tortoise in a Nutshell tell a story through puppets that are filmed live and projected on a screen, building a form of “live cinema.” They are distinctly their own company however. There are live hand-drawn images, live sound effects, and detailed world-building in a black and white miniature pen and ink style set.
The company’s labor is visible to us—physically laying out and setting up the buildings, people, and spaces of a small seaside town, filming the denizens (some characters are flat drawings, some are sculpted) in close up shots, and then quickly dismantling and resetting the scene in different ways.
The story focuses on the changing and destructive forces that overtake the town when their local park is demolished and replaced with an arcade. Crime, vandalism, broken windows, graffiti, and general disregard for the community grows as the economic strains on the townspeople increase.
While the arcade sits like a malevolent force pulsing with nightclub beats and flashing lights in the center of the town, it is a symptom of an underlying problem. The project was a result of political corruption and a promise of fruitful development and job creation, none of which has come to pass. Small towns are dying and this is an example of how they go out. Not with a bang, but an arcade.
We see the town and events through the eyes of two siblings, the younger Joe and the elder Dawn.
It is an incredibly detailed universe created with various town shops to explore inside and out—from the Pre-Victorian Lighting Emporium to the hair salon where the patrons’ hair styles are revealed when the helmet-dryers are lifted. Live sound effects boost the atmosphere with seagulls squawking, dogs barking, ferry whistles tooting, and even the clink-clank of a letter box when the mail is delivered. The sound design reaches its apex in a symphonic moment of interstitial music all created from the sound designer vocalizing and layering his voice with a looping pedal.
There is skillful artistry in the visual design as well with some fantastic character perspective shots from one building to another filmed with the small handheld cameras. A glimpse at the glittering, lit-up ferry pier from Joe’s house (and his perspective) is dreamy and evocative. There are jokes and little Easter eggs throughout that you might not notice upon quick observation, including a town bus advertising The Sticker Man possibly riffing on The Wicker Man. Like many puppet companies they invite you up on stage afterwards to take a closer work at the objects and see the things you may have missed during the show itself.
But structurally, the story is largely observational—Dawn and Joe walking through the town in repeating loops as it disintegrates before our eyes. That’s pretty much the whole of it.
It has a twee, cutesy quality to begin with then upended by the grim reality of what is happening. We are supposed to be swept away into the exaggerated picturesque setting—a lively pier with carnival barker voices, quirky shopkeepers, and an inexplicable relationship between a priest and a squirrel.
Only later we are supposed to be “shocked” when things shift and the puppetry shows people having sex in the streets, dogs to pissing all over the place (liquid squirting included), and people vomiting (it jiggles) in the gutters. But the narrative evolution is blunt in contrast to the delicately calibrated design. While watching these artists work feverishly to keep the images flowing and visuals popping, the story suffers from a contrived emotional core.
Can very tiny puppets be heavy-handed? It turns out they can.