Paper Cinema kicked of this year’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry with a nostalgic glimpse backward to both their own back catalogue and the festival’s inaugural performances in 2009. Back then, Paper Cinema performed this collection of three shorts King Peck, The Night Flyer and Rock Charmer at the Hen and Chicken in North Street, not far from the festival’s home ground of the Tobacco Factory Theatre. Fast forward to 2015 and the festival has grown to include both adult and children events, a full on procession through the streets and the employment of multiple venues across Bristol.
Tonight we are at the Watershed cinema, the usual home of Studio Ghibli, deconstructed French Indie flicks and a pretty nice bar. Aside from the overt link to the group’s name, hosting the show here, in the land of actual cinema, really emphasises the tactical skill of involved in creating these stories. The expressiveness of the hand-drawn characters, along with the genuine emotion stirred up from their ethereal live music, is enough to make many a Manic Pixie Dream Girl retreat shamefully into her hoodie.
One of the pleasures of watching Paper Cinema is that you essentially get to watch the show twice, both in the images that appear on the screen and by watching them come to life at the hands of those controlling the paper pictures in the area below the screen. In 2013, they performed their beautiful and very funny account of Homer’s The Odyssey in the tiny Brewery Theatre, also at the Festival of Puppetry. Then, as now, one is always caught halfway between the story being told and simply being mesmerised by watching the group magic it into creation.
For fans of the group, this was an unmissable chance to re-visit some of their earlier works – ones, it was hinted, that may be unlikely to be performed again. And whilst all were beautifully executed and sweetly haunting, a marginal lack of finish was detectable. The Odyssey, in comparison, is crisper and, despite it being adapted from the very story that gave its name to long-winded journeys, narratively slicker.
Journeys – along with the sea – seem to be a theme in the group’s work, as demonstrated by the pieces performed tonight. Of the three works, by far the strongest and most effecting is The Night Flyer. In a world of evil Isambard Kingdom Brunel industrialists, the Night Flyer is spirited away from her love by a top-hatted villain. Taken on a journey on the symbol of industrialisation, the steam train, the kidnapped sweetheart is pursued by her brave Breton-striped boy on his bike. His headlong journey after her is conducted with all the passionate heartbreak of little Gerda looking for her friend Kay in the Ice Queen’s palace. And when he finds her, locked in a cage like the saddest little Night Flyer in the world, it is a songbird the colour of Karen’s shoes who leads him to the key.
The simplicity of the narrative of The Night Flyer is effective not only in generating a deliciously perfect fairy tale, but in also setting free the audience to marvel at the orchestration of the show without fear of missing the vital twist and getting lost in the plot. This was a gorgeous start to what looks to be a vintage year of the festival, and a subtle reminder of how far both Paper Cinema and the festival of puppetry have come.