We tend to remember Lee Alexander McQueen for the clothes he designed for other people rather than the ones he wore himself, but this lets us forget one important fact: he looked really good in a kilt. Most men don’t. In fact, when the requisite man-in-a-kilt turns up at the British wedding (almost as much a mainstay as the ring itself), he invariably looks deeply uncomfortable, the stiff, gaudy fabric somehow refusing to fall in anything approaching a natural way. McQueen, however, made it look like an uncontrived and stylish choice. We could claim that’s for reasons of ancestry, but the American Marc Jacobs also wears the man skirt with style, so perhaps it is more to do with being an award winning fashion designer than having family from Skye. Either way, I’d like to see more men in kilts. It’s a depressing failure of feminism to always be so pro-trousers, insisting that liberation comes from binding each leg individually in cloth rather than allowing for men to be initiated into the sheer joy of the skirt.
Bot, Bristol Festival of Puppetry’s bank holiday weekend guests at the Arnolfini, are all in kilts and it’s a good look. There’s not a scrap of tartan in sight, no semi-ironic sporrans and no (thank fuck) bagpipes. Which actually comes as a surprise given that what they do have is just about every instrument known to mankind possible to make out of a junkyard. This ranges from classical musical instruments hybridised into the sort of thing Dr Seuss would probably name a ‘Foogle Horn’ and get Thing One to go a-tooting down the road with, to things made with a more generalised selection of the crap commonly collected by students, namely traffic cones and fake dollar bills.
Some of this works and some of it doesn’t – mainly because in the end you have to listen to the music and some of these Willy-Wonker-turns-Gramophone-critic inventions make pretty awful noises. I’m sure this is deliberate, but the woman in front of me looks like she’s having to use her hands to keep her own face from falling off her skull and I agree with her that there’s only so long you can listen to plates being smashed in to a cement mixer (or at least I think that’s what she’s trying to convey). The best invention by far is the piano being played inside a giant spinning wheel, proving it’s sometimes the timeless skill of being able to avoid vomiting when tinkling the ivories upside down that really impresses.
In terms of puppetry – that is the point of the festival after all – there are small amounts of automated instrument playing, notably a cameo by the Adam’s Family’s Thing playing a kid’s toy keyboard and an anthropomorphised accordion a-creeping round the stage. Perhaps just because of it being programmed as a part of a puppetry festival, it would have been nice to see more of this element. In reality the whole show is more about four men creating rock music on jingle jangle junkyard instruments, which is laudable from a sustainability point of view (you too could create an orchestra from the local tip) but doesn’t have a lot to do with puppetry in any respect.
The performance ultimately reminds me of what would happen if the Box Trolls appeared at Exit festival. The best parts of the set are definitely the clomping upbeat numbers, rather than the solemn dirges (which don’t quite work because it’s hard to look serious when you’ve just been playing an instrument that involves you sitting in a tin bath tub and whizzing up and down a see saw) and Bot cannot be accused of not trying – far from it. The stage is covered in so many instruments now that there’s barely room for the performers and there’s smoke and lights and millions of bits of paper flying through the air and and and…and that’s kind of the problem. They get a standing ovation, most of the crowd seem to love them and when they speak at the end they come across as a sincerely nice group of guys, but for me it never quite gelled. There was almost too much and for all of the ginormousness of the contorted Frankensteinian creations, most seemed barely used and many, when they were, didn’t actually sound that great.
This is a really energetic group who obviously entertained the crown thoroughly, but they could have done twice as much with half as much. It’s an attractive aesthetic, but instead of selecting bits of value from a skip, it’s like they’ve taken the whole bloody lot, glued it together and spewed it back out on stage. Stripped back and with more focus on one or two glorious machines that actually produce interesting sounds this show could be a goer but right now the scene looks too much like Wreck-It Ralph’s sleeping quarters after an impromptu rendition of Stomp at the Christmas party. Time to call in Felix.