When you think of plays that might be both funny and true, feminist puppeteers don’t immediately spring to mind. But Canon Warriors, a piece of new writing by Hannah Greenstreet as part of the OUDS New Writing Festival, and a play about a pair of homeless feminist puppeteers is exactly that. So funny, so poignant, and so brilliantly clever.
I think what I appreciated most about this play was its detail. Things like an excessively long scarf that Livi Dunlop, the original of the two puppeteers, had to wind several times round their neck at the play’s opening, or the yoghurt they ate with one finger mid-way in, or Daisy Hayes’ tongue poking out in fierce concentration as partner Fleur during the puppet show. On Poppy Eastwood’s lovely set was strewn the debris of the pair’s life: a carefully accumulated book collection, a less careful assortment of food, and a deckchair. Against this backdrop, and under the tight and sensitive direction of Ell Potter, these little things could not fail to be noticed; they crafted a realism that rooted the zany play in a plausible human story.
There wasn’t a weak actor in the cast. Dunlop, who began as the funnier puppeteer of the partnership but ended as its more tragic, was wonderfully eccentric and genuinely hilarious. I was impressed by the dexterity with which they moved from comic nonchalance, through rage, and into dejection, at all times convincingly. In fact, both characters were able to switch suddenly, but fluidly, providing a range that they maintained through the whole piece. As the more relatable of the two characters, Hayes naturally had her audience’s empathy. But she made this complex, keeping a little of herself shrouded, from us as from the other characters. The duo was offset by Matthew Shore as the awkward and endearing Aidan, who made that awkwardness palpable, especially during his moment of audience interaction.
But the chemistry between Hayes and Dunlop really lifted the play. Their relationship was at once comic, frustrating, and tender. More unusual was the chemistry they achieved between two subsidiary characters, their hand puppets Sid and Dog. That these two fluffy puppets could take human gestures and convey human emotions was a tribute to the talent of their controllers.
Above all, recognition should be afforded to Greenstreet for her strikingly intelligent and original script. The text was replete with witty one liners, bristling with the politics of the puppet show and its setting in Thanet, constituency of UKIP leader Nigel Farage, but shaped by a deeply personal story. And I enjoyed how tentatively Greenstreet allowed this story to emerge, courageously withholding information right up until the end of the play.
If I was to offer a single criticism, it was that at moments Greenstreet’s dialogue was lost to garbled lines. But this seems nit-picky given the overwhelming energy and emotion that the cast gave to their performances. I really, really enjoyed this wonderful piece of new writing: definitely go and see it this week at the Burton Taylor Studio.