“I’d like our audiences to walk away with aching sides and a slightly bemused expression, secure in the knowledge that they had a jolly good time, even if they weren’t always convinced that they had a hold on what was happening…”
Henry Maynard is a former War Horse puppeteer, Amused Moose Laugh Off finalist and founder of Flabbergast Theatre, who are bringing two of their favourite shows to Wilton’s Music Hall in London next month. One sees the return of Balkan bad boys and stars of the Edinburgh fringe, Boris and Sergey; the other is a solo show about one man’s quest for a friend, performed by Henry himself.
“Tatterdemalion is an hilarious one-man, silent-ish, physical comedy with silliness in abundance, to a backdrop of Victoriana and otherworldliness with a dash of pathos,” he summarises. “And Boris & Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium is the Balkan bad boys of puppetry’s homage to the travelling freak shows of the 1930s, featuring escapology, wild animals and a live séance… Hilarity will ensue.”
All Flabbergast’s shows are the result of an ongoing development process in which both company members and audience play a vital role. “We work with a highly collaborative devising process,” explains Henry. “I come up with the stuff… they do it.
“I’m being facetious. Normally we get in a room with our ideas and keep what makes us laugh. Then we bring it all together in a mostly coherent way.
“All our shows develop in front of the audience; the things that work stay in and the things that don’t we keep flogging away at until eventually we realise we’d be better doing something else. I like the organic way our shows grow.”
Unsurprisingly, this means that audience interaction is an important part of Flabbergast’s productions. “All live theatre relies on participation, the shame is that audiences are often unaware of it,” says Henry. “I blame Stanislavski and his cursed ‘fourth wall’. He was like an earlier version of Trump – ‘I’m gonna build a wall and the performers will pay for it!’
“If you come to a Flabbergast show you are involved and that’s what is great about live theatre – otherwise you might as well stay at home and watch Gogglebox.”
Henry founded Flabbergast back in 2010 to make uncompromising and exciting physical theatre. “I was inspired to set up Flabbergast by Puppetry, Clown, Commedia dell’arte and all the other avant-garde theatre styles that make no money… anywhere… ever,” he explains. “I wanted to perform, learn, direct and teach them. As a company, we aim to make theatre that is sweaty and engaging, physical and alive, and we want to promote puppetry and clown specifically as valid and important art forms in theatre.”
Currently, the company’s focus is on Bunraku puppetry, and particularly on how this can be used to reach an adult audience. “Bunraku is like distilled humanity,” says Henry. “We can sometimes become hardened to real adult people, callous and uncaring – but puppets get through to us like children and animals do, we sympathise with them more. They’re magical and draw the spotlight, they call to our innate desire to personify and humanise everything; we delight in their play as children delight in the antics of their toys.”
Both shows have proved a hit so far, with a host of four and five star reviews, and Henry’s looking forward to sharing them with a London audience: “Bringing the shows to London and specifically to Wilton’s Music Hall is going to be incredible. It’s another feather in the Balkan bad boys of puppetry’s cap as they march towards inevitable world domination, and the beautiful theatre is the perfect backdrop for Tatterdemalion. If you’ve never been to Wilton’s Music Hall you must come to the shows just to see it. It’s the oldest grand music hall in the world.”
So of the two shows, which one does Henry recommend? “I’m in Tatterdemalion so that one…” he suggests. “But seriously, I’m proud of both the shows and they are great for different reasons. If you’re a puppetry fan, Boris & Sergey is pure puppetry fun, whereas Tatterdemalion has a sprinkling but will appeal more to physical theatre fans. Neither are pretentious though, we take a tongue in cheek approach to our art and work.”
Then again, with a 20% discount for multiple booking, we could just see both…