CELL @ The Underbelly Cowgate (Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2015) Review

The production of CELL is in collaboration with puppetry-focused companies Smoking Apples and Dogfish. The project started in 2012, and after performing at a number of theatres such as Greenwich Theatre, Incoming Festival and the New Diorama, it was nominated for a Peter Brook Festival award in 2014.

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The play tackles a crucial human malady; the paralysing disease MND (Motor Neurone Disease), famously attached to Stephen Hawking’s entity. The protagonist is a puppet called Ted, made up of a white cushion body with hard hands, head and feet. This detachment of a skeleton is a well-suited symbolism of the physical degrading disease. It also serves to create an agile frame for the puppeteers to manoeuvre.

We follow Ted’s story, starting from the end. Ted sits in a special chair; a computerised voice begins to narrate as the puppet’s black, hollow eyes stare out to the audience, looking lifeless in this initial stillness. We then go back to before Ted’s diagnosis of MND. The fast flicks of the puppet’s hands and head are a joy to watch. Through the movement, a sure character springs to life, a character that is pernickety and precise in his intention; who is a bit of a joker. He looks to the audience, confirming that his situation is good; sharing with us in a way a clown checks in with the audience. The fact that Ted has an “average” disposition, where nothing is too extravagant in his life, means that it is easy for us, the audience, to relate to his simple pleasures, such as the joy of reading a book, being rudely interrupted by his pet fish. Ted’s life choices are sweet and uncomplicated; he collects postcards as a hobby, enjoys reading a book, and hates being disturbed. He bumbles along nicely, until he starts noticing the shakes.

There is a three-point screen that creates a backdrop to the stage. This in due course becomes a fresh interjection to the narrative. Through the use of this white screen and lighting, shadow puppetry is successfully conjured. A cut out Ted walks across the screen in a slow, sophisticated manner; each leg is carefully followed through, it is indeed fascinating to watch. At times, however, because there are not many words in the play, and due to the naturalistic element, the narrative becomes slow.

Puppetry is one of those magical phenomena, in which the more human the puppet is, the more fascinating it is to watch as our mannerisms and even soul can transgress onto an object of fabric, foam and wood. The collaborated company have created such a puppet in this thrifty, yet simple figure. The three performers transport the puppet effortlessly, and bring essential breath into Ted. They share between them the portrayal of the different characters that come into play; these characters are likable and stylised to suit an overall lightness of the play. Despite the sombre subject matter, CELL is a touching performance that tackles the disease with a warm sensitivity, inviting the audience into Ted’s simple life and encouraging an acceptance of MND. 4/5

Review written by RATHE.

CELL is currently showing at the Underbelly Cowgate as part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival until Sunday 30th August. For more information on the production, visit here…

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