Originally written for Fest Magazine.
In the midst of a festival where puppetry is back in vogue, Tea Break Theatre is pushing against the tide. This ramshackle rendition of the traditional seaside favourite trades puppets for actors, with three performers taking on the roles of Punch, his put-upon wife and the wide cast of supporting players.
All the usual suspects are present, from the sausage-guzzling crocodile to the incompetent constable, rolled out in a constant, chaotic merry-go-round of costume changes. Making little attempt to break away from the show’s groaningly recognisable conventions, Punch encounters these characters one by one in an anarchic succession of scenes, piling up the bodies as he goes but achieving little else along the way. Even the sitting duck of the banker gets off with the lightest of satires.
If, by swapping puppets for humans, Tea Break Theatre has aimed to give this sprawling farce any real life contemporary resonance, it is almost impossible to detect. The early scenes are so packed with below-par slapstick and strained humour that when events do take a turn for the darker, any sense of menace is unearned. Only in the dying moments, as desperation cracks his pasted on smile, does the image of Punch gain anything approaching potency.
“If you be happy,” Punch says to the audience as the show opens, “me be happy too.” By these standards, Punch’s smile is not about to return any time soon.