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Pulling the heart strings

Nicola Mostyn on how Ronnie Burkett enchants and amazes in The Library Theatre’s <i>10 Days on Earth</i>

Published on May 15th 2007.

Pulling the heart strings

Prior to watching this production my experience of puppetry consisted of pier-end Punch and Judys, Avenue Q and a childhood toy caterpillar which resisted my efforts to bring it to life and eventually strangled to death on its own strings.

All quite scarring experiences, so it was with some curiosity and trepidation that I greeted Ronnie Burkett’s 10 Days on Earth, even before we were informed that there would be no interval, latecomers would not be admitted and anyone nipping out for bathroom break or a sudden compulsion for Minstrels would categorically NOT be allowed back in. “Blimey”, I thought, “this man knows how to crank up the tension.”

10 Days on Earth is the story of Darrel, a man with learning disabilities who lives with his mother, Ivy. When Ivy dies in her sleep, Darrel continues with his strict routines, meeting his friends and going to work on his shoe-shine stall, all the while waiting for her to wake up.

That’s just one advantage they have over actors; you can guarantee the audience isn’t thinking: “Didn’t I see him in Hobson’s Choice?”

As we follow Darrel through the ten days in which he is, unwittingly, alone, the details of his day-to-day life are interspersed with scenes from his favourite children’s story – that of the dapper Honeydog and cute duck Little Burp - and also with flashbacks from his childhood which flesh out (if you can ‘flesh out’ a marionette) the characters of his mother and absent father.

Whilst getting to know the enchanting main character, we also meet the other people in Darrel’s life: the Salvation Army lady who he calls ‘Ice Cream’, the girlfriend he sings to and the hilarious bum who spews furious invective at passers-by, claming to be a very-pissed-off God.

That’s a good joke because, actually, Burkett is God, towering up there in the heavens, pulling his characters’ strings and adopting their gestures, giving them voice (not easy when they all talk a mile-a-minute) and directing their fates with frankly quite astounding energy and with a skill which conveys the smallest of mannerisms and the slightest quirk.

Hence, at some point, the marionettes stop being marionettes and simply are the characters. That’s just one advantage they have over actors; you can guarantee the audience isn’t thinking: “Didn’t I see him in Hobson’s Choice?” And while, no, I have never seen a human actor’s head turn all the way round, Burkett dealt with this marionette’s malfunction with quick wit, incorporating it into the script and gaining appreciative applause.

As the quick-changing scenes unfold, Darrel chats away to his mother through her closed bedroom door and comes ever closer to the truth in poignant moments which are juxtaposed neatly against the camp, imaginative adventures of the dog in the “cranberry-coloured coat.”

As well as performing the entire show, Burkett also designed the puppets, the costumes and the set and wrote the songs and the script - it’s the very definition of a labour of love. And while the individual aspects are impressive enough on their own - the incredible detail of the marionettes, the warm snappy script – the whole thing comes together to create something quite transporting: a sensitive, hilarious and uplifting exploration of home, family and what it means to be different.

So, it’s all about humanity. Only told with puppets. Amazing. And now a message to those people who felt they had to leave halfway: I hope your Minstrels were worth it.

10 Days on Earth.
Library Theatre
(Central Library, St Peter’s Square, City. 0161 236 7110. www.librarytheatre.com).
From £15.50. Until Sat 19 May

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