SBW Stables Theatre, April 20


It’s like an elaborate children’s game: one that not only incorporates the video madness of modernity, but that looks back fondly to a gentler world of dolls’ houses and their inhabitants. Meanwhile it’s also some weird theatrical cousin of B-grade movies, and a step-sibling of Thunderbirds, the 1960s British sci-fi TV show for kids, done with puppets and models.

Matt Abotomey & Angela Johnston. Photos: Lucy Parakhina

UFO (here being premiered) is the brainchild of director/video designer Solomon Thomas (whose re:group collective last year gave us a clever piece of “live cinema” called Coil) and writer Kirby Medway, with crucial input from puppet designer Chris Howell. The latter’s work is perhaps the show’s most intriguing innovation, having used a process whereby he scans the actors, and then creates their likenesses in miniature via a 3D printer.

So the four performers, Matt Abotomey, James Harding, Angela Johnston and Tahlee Leeson, voice puppet versions of themselves that are about 25 centimetres tall. They manipulate these puppets, which have some elementary neck and arm movement, and meanwhile live-video them, so we see the action as a form of slow-motion animation on screens. The 3D printing leaves the figurines ringed with discernible horizontal lines around their faces, not unlike the cross-hatching in a moody graphic novel, and the action plays out on a waist-high set designed by Angus Callander that beautifully depicts a golf-course, complete with mock-Tudor clubhouse.

Tahlee Leeson, James Harding and Angela J0hnston. Photos: Lucy Parakhina.

I’m telling you all this as a priority over what the piece is “about”, because this is very much the theatre of process rather than of story, character or doctrinal premise. At the outset it’s all so novel that one is utterly enthralled by the visual presentation and by a quirky old-world charm that pervades the piece, despite the slick technology on display.

The problem is that about 15 minutes in you’ve adjusted to all that, and the remaining 50 minutes has you less engrossed by the methodology and more inclined to go in search of the story. This, it turns out, has been printed in two dimensions rather than three.

A UFO, represented by a panel of lights at the top of the Stables stairwell, has landed on the golf course, and two of the four characters have been allocated the task of observing and notating variations in the flashing of its lights. Their main concern is that they are running out of paper on which to make their notes. Now, call me old-fashioned, but were I watching a blazing UFO hulking on the eighteenth hole, I don’t think a lack of note paper would be my primary concern.

The show-stealing ducks. Photos: Lucy Parakhina.

The rest of the story also operates on this micromanagement level, merely touching on the big-ticket questions of where the UFO has come from, who or what is on board, and whether communication is possible.

Enter the show-stealing flock of ducks. In easily UFO’s cutest aspect, some astutely under-acting miniature ducks inhabit the golf course. Initially there’s just a couple, but as the show goes on, more and more fly in (which we see) and, ducks being ducks, they quack, and it is this that finally galvanises the UFO into life.

The four actors have so little to work with (other than technologically) that one can’t really assess their performances, and the story struggles to generate sufficient tension to keep us from idly admiring the ducks. A UFO, by definition, implies flying. This one doesn’t get airborne, but it certainly flaps its wings in an imaginative way.

Until April 29.