Review: Bill’s 44th, Dorothy James & Andy Manjuck, Underbelly, Ed Fringe, by Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Sometimes I’m a real easy sell. Give me some impressive puppetry, and I’m sold. But what I got from Bill’s 44th, was something else.

Bill’s 44th is a comical play about age. Bill is throwing himself a party and eagerly awaiting his guests. But when no one shows, he goes through a number of different emotions from sadness, to making the best of things, to drunk and high and reflection.

Bill is a puppet. He is orchestrated by two puppeteers, moving his torso, arms and head but legs and hands are from the puppeteers. Their faces are visible behind Bill but you forget almost instantly that they are there. Their movements, and movements from other puppeteers throughout as so smooth and precise that you very much forget actual humans are on stage.

There is sound and music but no talking; all the action and emotion is conveyed easily through Bill and we understand instantly. To get these across, movement and gestures are exaggerated but it didn’t feel false and very much as if we were breaking down the fourth wall.

Bill reminded me very much of a puppet version of Mr Bean; we can tell exactly what he is thinking, feeling and doing just by movements and gesture alone. Facial expressions, you’d think, would be vacant from a puppet with no eyes or general facial movement, but, somehow, he manages them. Call it talent of the puppeteers/creators, call it our imagination, call it both.

Bill’s journey is nothing short of a emotional roller coaster. We are excited, then we are sad; he makes the most of the situation and we laugh again, to suddenly fearing the dark emotions on stage and sadness at Bill’s reflection, to leaving in elation. We see a scene where we are moved through Bill’s life, birthday to birthday through a miniature version of him, where you begin to see his loneliness with age – something we may all experience. For a puppet, I felt extraordinary sadness for him and pure happiness when he in the end accepts himself and becomes his own friend.

Bill goes through a drunken, high moment, with walls becoming puppetry and moving in a sliding motion; balloons become people that destroy his house and make-out in the back; his crudite carrot becomes life-size. It is such an adventure, heightening all your feelings and making you fully belly laugh until you ache.

Bill’s 44th is so stupid – in a brilliant, hilarious way. It is stupid in the clever, comedic way – the way The Mighty Boosh, Mr Bean, Blackadder are all just silly, silly comedy. But it is also dark in places. It is also poignant and emotional. It is an all rounder. My favourite comment from the man next to me was “What the f did I just watch?” through tears and laughter – I missed a chance to tell him, “You, Sir, just watched pure perfection and genius”.

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