Midway through Puppet Place’s ten-day-long Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 (“dollies going mental behind screens”, as my then-12-year-old son described his first taste of contemporary puppetry back in the day, courtesy of Green Ginger) comes The Broke ’N’ Beat Collective – a first co-production between Theatre-Rites and 20 Stories High that drew acclaim at this year’s ASSITEJ international festival of theatre for children and young people. B’n’B is part gig, part theatre and part storytelling, drawn from the real-life experiences of young people, taking the concept of Theatre in Education to a new high with the use of outstanding puppetry and virtuoso beatboxing.
On stage is a wall of cardboard boxes of different sizes, each containing a story to be unpacked in turn by the four-strong Collective: beat-boxer and acapella sound-looper extraordinaire Hobbit, singer/poetess Elektric, breakdancer LoGISTic, and master-puppeteer Moccasin.
The boxes are opened one by one, releasing in turn: uncontrollable laughter that veers from the sinister to the euphoric; a posse of housing-estate kids trying to stay sparky under the shadow of curfews and aerial surveillance (“We’re broke but we’re not broken, we’re beat but we’re not beaten”); jittery hoodie-boy Omar, whose curiosity is stunted by fear and suspicion; a girl assailed by perfect images of beauty in magazines and on social media, who teeters on the edge of self-harm. A comment overheard in the bar afterwards nicely captured the show’s universal appeal to a younger audience: “Dad, all those kids in that show, they’re in my class at school.”
Without resorting to broad brushstrokes or clichés, The Broke ‘N’ Beat Collective witness the lives of inner-city kids with nuance, style and attention to detail, making their stories personalised as well as instantly recognisable. The small worlds contained inside their cardboard boxes open out like 3-D versions of the shoe-box installations we all made at school, populated with all the self-doubt, exuberance and potential of young people trying to make sense of an increasingly fragmented and confusing reality.
This show is accessible, stylish and made with empathy and respect, in stark contrast to a plethora of simplistic and patronising get-down-wid-da-kidz-style work that is so often churned out for young adult audiences: the theatrical equivalent of embarrassing dad-dancing. A scoop for the Festival of Puppetry, and one that rightly drew a rare standing ovation.
Bristol Festival of Puppetry continues until Sunday, Sept 10. For more info, visit www.bristolfestivalofpuppetry.org/events