Though his roots lie in Italian commedia dell’arte, the puppet character of Punch (or Pulcinella, or Polichinelle, or Petrushka etc.) has been famous around the world for centuries on end. Tonight, the 400-year-old story is told with renewed vigour and impeccable execution by French outfit Compagnie La Pendue in the packed-out auditorium of Traverse 2.
There are certain elements which the audience invariably expects from a Punch show (the use of the kazoo-like ‘swazzle’, Punch’s mistreatment of his ladyfriend and their offspring, the appearance of a string of sausages, his tussle with the long arm of the law and his final showdown with an ultimate foe) and La Pendue do not disappoint with any, including all of the usual bells and whistles and throwing in a few original ones of their own.
In particular, the entrance of Punch’s mistress, the rapid multiplication of his children and his grand despatch of the three incarnations of death are handled with aplomb. Meanwhile, the flurried activity of the fight scenes is almost reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters like The Matrix – a point which the play deftly acknowledges in a brilliant piece of self-awareness. It’s not the only time the puppeteers willingly break the fourth wall, and each occasion succeeds in adding another layer of humour to the production.
The decision to conduct much of the show in French might at first seem to be a limitation imposed by the performers’ language skills, but soon reveals itself to be an ingenious vehicle for further comedy. Notwithstanding the fact that the Traverse seems to be hosting a surprisingly high number of French speakers, the flurry of dialogue and the breakdown in communication it sometimes deliberately leads to are an additional font for hilarity that is milked for maximum impact by Estelle Charlier and Romauld Collinet. The only time that the gulf in language poses any problems is with the changing wordplay on Punch’s signpost, and while this would certainly be more effective without the need for translation, it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the piece in the slightest.
Though the material itself might not be the most original, the release offered by the show in a world that is becoming ever more PC by the day is a breath of fresh air. As Punch murders a policeman without a second thought, casually sweeps up the corpses of his children and gleefully evades the clutches of death, the laughter flows freely and without even the teeniest trifling amount of guilt. For anyone who thought Punch and Judy was just a kids’ show, La Pendue are thoroughly enjoyable proof that the mischievous ragamuffin can provide fun for theatre-goers of any age.