Bigger and bolder than ever, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival recently celebrated its thirty – first anniversary.

Of the more than five hundred choices on offer in 2017, these highly – diverse options included art exhibitions, cabaret, competitions, debates, improvisation, kids’ comedy, musicals, sketch shows, song cycles, theatre, and traditional stand – up. Put simply, there was something of interest available for everyone.

What a delight to discover that the fine art of puppetry, is experiencing a global live entertainment resurgence. Recent examples designed especially for grown – ups, such as the musical, ‘Avenue Q’, Jim Henson’s ‘Puppet Up’, and The Golden Girls’ tribute, ‘Thank You for Being a Friend’, have all captured the hearts and minds of adults, world – wide.

In the festival’s closing weekend, ‘The Mighty Little Puppet Show’ played for two evenings at The National Theatre in St. Kilda. With a compact sixty – minute running – time, this show is best described as an appealing mix of improvisation, theatre sports, and extensive audience interaction.

This is the second show I reviewed this season with a strong focus on viewer participation.

Where the outrageous Scottish comic, Craig Hill, used friendly banter to shape his act, ‘The Mighty Little Puppet Show’ also made it all about us. Meaning, no two performances are ever quite identical.

Led by amiable emcee, David S. Innes, the ‘The Mighty Little Puppet Show’ quickly introduced us to its group of hand puppets (and their respective operators).

On the night I reviewed their act, the company was also joined by a special guest star. Rik Brown is a well – known mainstay on the Melbourne improvisation circuit. Known for his gentle, intelligent yet accessible, fast – thinking brand of humour, Brown was in top form playing against the troupe.

Over the course of the hour, the team performed a handful of short plays. Part of their philosophy hinged on plot points for each story line, ultimately being decided by shout – outs from the audience.

Further, several volunteers were able to choose each puppet’s characteristics using a board called the face buffet (or the smaller, more portable takeaway snack platter). Detachable eyes, noses and moustaches not only brought each creation to life, it was then up to the operators to give their respective puppet a suitable voice to match.

Routines varied in length and covered such quirky themes as pet therapy, a bungled bank robbery, a movie pitch, a costume drama parody in the style of ‘Downton Abbey’, and job interview endowments.

A seeming twist on the hit television series, ‘Thank God You’re Here’, the last story also included a brilliant guessing game component. Again, key suggestions prior to the challenge, were thrown open to the crowd.

For that exercise, Brown’s extensive theatre sports skills and stellar guess work, were truly put to the test. Kept before the game in figurative dark back stage, his task was to determine what career he was seeking, who the interviewer was, and where the interview was taking place. For the duration of the piece, various cast members dropped verbal clues into the narrative to help him out. Up close and personal, it made for fascinating entertainment.

Last year ‘The Mighty Little Puppet Show’ played sell – out seasons at Improvention in Canberra, the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and the Adelaide Fringe Festival. It should be noted that the team ran a kid – friendly variation (designed especially for families) called ‘The Junior Mighty Little Puppet Show’, at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival as well.

That they performed for us on stage behind the red curtain at the National Theatre, gave the experience a particularly intimate touch.  This is a show that clearly works in tandem with any festival program, and perhaps as a free – standing or potential corporate gig, too.

 

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