Mireille and Mathieu bill themselves as puppeteers – but what they do is closer to two large, enthusiastic kids playing with action figures than it is to any puppetry you may have seen before.
No traditional puppets are used in Arm – the duo instead favour a plethora of kids’ toys and flea-market objects. It seems as if they will use anything, from dusty blankets and ironing boards to garden gnomes and Barbie dolls.
“I hope you speak French!” Mireille jokes to the audience as they enter – they are one of the many companies that perform as part of ‘Big in Belgium’ in Edinburgh this year. I do not speak French. Not to worry though: Arm contains little actual dialogue (all in English), but instead is set mostly to a continual background noise of the pair’s grunts, groans, vocalisms and mumbled Franglais. It’s used to great comic effect, with growls and murmurs accompanied by grotesque facial expressions, and it breathes an extra breath of life into action that could have fell flat on its own.
in the first few minutes we are treated to a crucified Ken doll flying off on his crucifix and a bizarre and brutal toddler fight club
Despite this lack of dialogue, the play centres around the relationship and interactions of the pair, and yet for the most part they eschew communication by speech. Puppetry is their language, and they speak it fluently. The crude and basic nature of the ‘puppets’ they use does not stop them manipulating their objects with impressive life and vigour. Instead the pair bound around the space with boisterousness and foster a wonderful back-and-forth, mixing quips and slapstick with puppet interactions to pronounced comic effect.
The play doesn’t have a plot as such, instead consisting of an almost sketch-like series of skits and bits. Nothing is off the table: in the first few minutes we are treated to a crucified Ken doll flying off on his crucifix and a bizarre and brutal toddler fight club. There’s a quick, pacey variety to the performance: they rarely dwell on a scene too long, preferring instead to throw another one at the audience with the same gusto as before. There are a couple of exceptions to this – scenes that outlive their usefulness or perhaps just missed the mark in the first place – but in a show with such a volume of material, that is to be expected.
Arm is simply unadulterated childlike fun
The lack of any overarching narrative does hamper the production, at least at first. The skits aren’t always well strung together, and on occasion there is a dip in the energy as the pair move from one to another. But as the play progresses and the performers and audience discover a comfortable rapport, this becomes much less of an issue. The pace picks up, and funny ad-libs cover any small gaps that are left in between.
The lack of story also led me initially on a fruitless search for some sort of meaning or purpose to the production – a search which probably says as much about me as it does about the show. Given the propensity of fringe theatre to masquerade as something deeper and more meaningful than its true contents, it is easy to become conditioned to be constantly looking for it – but Arm is simply unadulterated childlike fun. As soon as I’d learnt to sit back and appreciate it at face value, it became much more enjoyable.
Perhaps that was the point?
Arm is playing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, more information and tickets here.
Image: Proto-type and Adam York Gregory