Interview: Henry Maynard, Flabbergast Theatre

“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.

Photo credit: Richard Grubby

“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.”

Photo credit: Claudine Quinn/Lens On Legs

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…

Catch Boris & Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium and Tatterdemalion at Wilton’s Music Hall from 9th-13th May (for dates and times of each show, visit the website).

Review: Frankenstein at Greenwich Theatre

200 years after Mary Shelley wrote her classic gothic novel, Frankenstein returns to the stage in the skilled hands of Blackeyed Theatre. Adapted by John Ginman, this concise, two-hour retelling is suitably chilling and atmospheric while remaining family friendly, and is executed to perfection by a multi-talented cast of five… or should that be six?

Keeping true to the “story within a story within a story” format of Shelley’s novel, Eliot Giuralarocca’s production is set on the ship of Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, who rescues the exhausted Victor Frankenstein from the ice. Walton becomes fascinated by the mysterious stranger’s story of how, driven by crazed ambition, he built and gave life to a Creature, only to reject it and in doing so, drive it into a destructive cycle of loneliness and despair that ended up costing him everything.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The story, spanning several years, moves quickly – from Geneva to Ingolstadt to London to Scotland, and far beyond – and the cast do likewise. While Ben Warwick is on stage throughout as the wild-eyed, fast-talking, increasingly dishevelled Frankenstein, his fellow cast members are scarcely less busy. Each takes on multiple roles within the story, while still finding time to pop round the back of the stage and bring Ron McAllister’s dramatic soundtrack to life on timpani, cymbals and a variety of other ingenious, home-made instruments.

Act 1 is largely there to set up the story, and is quite science-heavy as Frankenstein describes his studies and his urgent desire to create life. But it’s in Act 2 that the production becomes truly electrifying, with the first real appearance of Yvonne Stone’s life-size Bunraku style puppet. Built from rope and cloth, with blank, staring eyes, the Creature is manipulated so skilfully by the cast, and voiced so perfectly by Louis Labovitch, that it’s genuinely possible to forget the actors are there at all, and to think of Frankenstein’s creation as entirely separate from the other characters they play: kind, beautiful Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), Victor’s supportive friend Henry (Max Gallagher), Walton, the explorer hanging on his every word, but not necessarily for the right reasons (Ashley Sean-Cook), and a multitude of cameo appearances as other minor characters. This is a production that’s about so much more than the impressive individual performances; it’s a seamless ensemble effort that requires everyone to be in exactly the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Victoria Spearing’s set takes inspiration from the ship on which the story begins and ends, and as Frankenstein narrates his tale, it springs to life from the materials around him. So the sail becomes a river; the Creature is formed from bundles and sacks of old rope and rags; more ropes are transformed into the electric wires that finally give it life. It’s testament both to the actors’ performance and the simple, descriptive style of John Ginman’s script, that without ever leaving the ship’s deck, we find ourselves transported to workshops, stormy mountaintops, courtrooms and even looking out over the quiet beauty of Lake Geneva.

I remember being a bit surprised the first time I read Frankenstein, because it felt a bit tame, not the out-and-out horror I’d been expecting. Similarly, Blackeyed Theatre’s excellent production doesn’t set out to shock us, but instead to send us home with a creeping unease as we contemplate the dangerous implications of arrogant human ambition. Though there’s certainly an element of suspense, the Creature’s crimes (most of which we don’t even see committed) provoke more sadness than fear, while he himself is so human that it’s harder to shrug his deeds off as merely the work of the supernatural – and so ironically it’s humanity, rather than monstrosity, that’s most likely to keep us awake at night.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉