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Elusive theatre puts audience at sea

Review: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, ‘Moominpappa at Sea‘ ⋅
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, December 7 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre will launch their summer holiday show Moominpappa at Sea this week. The production is based on a book written by Finnish author Tove Jansson describing the adventures of the eccentric Moomin family. Jansson’s series of stories from the mid 20th century about a family of white trolls with large snouts have developed a cult following. During the Moomin boom in the nineties the book series inspired movies, TV shows, merchandise, theme parks, and even the naming of the Moomintroll asteroid.

The Spare Parts production was created in 2015 by associate director Michael Barlow and the late Noriko Nishimoto, based on a book about the Moomin family moving to a deserted island. In this revival Barlow dons a top hat and takes on the role of Moominpappa, simultaneously voicing the other characters as he moves them around the island. Lighting designer Elliot Chambers operates the lights from the stage and takes on a cameo role as a fisherman/lighthouse keeper.

On one level it is a charming, timeless show that uses good old fashioned storytelling to transport us to a dreamy, mysterious island. On another level it is a melancholic and at times quite scary journey into one of Jansson’s more symbolist books.

We checked out a performance late last year during the schools season. In a string of quite disconnected scenes we discovered that nothing works out for the trolls on their new island home: the lighthouse is too small to enter, Moominmamma’s garden dies and storms wash away Moominpappa’s jetty. The overwhelming message is about loneliness and futility, depicted bleakly in the poem the trolls discover written on the lighthouse wall.

When Moomintroll decides to move out on his own and is haunted by the Troke it becomes quite nightmarish and creepy. The complete blackout in the theatre performance didn’t help; my five year old spent a large part of the performance huddled on my lap.

Many things are left unexplained such as the character of Little My (an adopted daughter), and the lighthouse which Moominpappa describes as huge but is actually far too small. And what is the purpose of the reclusive fisherman who is actually the previous lighthouse keeper?

Barlow providing the voices for Moomintroll and Moominmamma. Photo Jessica Wyld

Part of the problem is the trolls; Leon Hendroff’s designs are faithful to Jansson’s illustrations but essentially they are stuffed toys devoid of expression (not really puppets at all). Barlow’s gentle narrating doesn’t pack much emotional punch either, although it suits Jansson’s dreamy prose.

Instead the production relies heavily on Lee Buddle’s soundtrack to generate character and empathy. The sounds of waves, gulls and wind mix hypnotically with folksy flute and marimba. Even so the show never quite arrives at what the publicity material describes as “the spirit and joy of families going on great adventures together.”

Yet for all its melancholy and elusiveness it held the attention of my children and they both recommended others should go and see it.

In fact they travelled more deeply into the story than I realised. My seven year old thought the point of the story was that we should not take other people’s homes and try to rule over things. “They tried to rule over nature and nature didn’t like it. But when they made friends with the Groke and began to understand the sea it gave them things.”

Moominpappa At Sea runs Jan 14 – Feb 2. Recommended age is 5+ but I would suggest 6+.

Pictured top: Michael Barlow as Moominpappa. Photo Jessica Wyld.

Read a review of Moominpappa at Sea by junior critic Ollie Halusz, aged 13.

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