In Our Hands is an unusual piece of theatre. Smoking Apple have set themselves the challenge of using puppetry but no spoken dialogue to tell the tale of a Cornish fisherman's struggle for survival.
To be honest, I had severe reservations in the first few minutes, when I realised that I was in for a solid hour of wordless grunts, whoops, sighs and seagull noises. I was soon won over, however, by the charm of the puppets and the quirky humour of the production.
The central character, Alf, is an old codger of few words, trying to ply his contentious trade as a trawlerman in an increasingly hostile world of marine conservation protest, EU fish quotas, falling prices and competition from big business. His son has forsaken the family fishing firm in favour of a university degree and a PR career; his wife has died; he takes refuge in the bottle as his debts mount up. All looks hopeless, until his son comes up with an ingenious solution...
I loved the production design. The scenery is made up of weatherworn wooden chests on wheels, variously rotated, upended or stacked to create refrigerators, decking, fish markets, the trawler, PR offices, the London Underground, and even Ronnie Scott's jazz club.
The puppets are diverse. The two main human characters, Alf and his son Ben, are depicted using only a papier mache head and a single hand. The two heads are wonderful constructions: they are the colour and texture of patches of Elastoplast, giving the impression of faces lined by time, and the eyes have such a riveting gaze, when they turn to the audience they seem to be looking right into your soul. It is amazing how much character and meaning the puppeteers manage to communicate, using only these two inflexible items, by angle and gesture. By contrast, the lovable little seagull, whose story mirrors Alf's as she too struggles to find her daily bread, is a highly flexible glove puppet, with finger-legs and a clothes-peg beak.
There is a lot of water in the story, with the sea and the rain (and a very funny trip to the urinal!); the audience loved the use of watering cans and toy cars and torches to show the stormy night-time drive from Newlyn to London.
Watching this show was hard work for the audience, having to supply all the narrative and dialogue which would normally be handed to them on a plate through spoken language. The only audible words were a few answerphone messages and radio broadcasts. The audience had to make use of the information presented on chalk boards, in fish prices, in lists of assets, in mime and intonation, to tell themselves the story. It was all the more rewarding for that.