VAULT FESTIVAL 2015
Oh so much promise for weirdness and wonder! How could a musical performed by taxidermy animal puppets be anything but? Sing For Your Life promises to challenge your morality, whilst talking about the realities of death for those that end up as road kill. I’ve been eager to accept the challenge ever since I came across the company’s rink-a-tink piano draped with the eerily bulbous-eyed creatures in the Vault’s gallery space.
The problem is the novelty somewhat wears off after we’ve met each of Charlie Tuesday Gate’s creations and we’re left to watch a fairly humdrum narrative. Dog is a puppy desperate for affection but left at home, often unfed, by his neglectful, middle class owner. One evening he pursues her sudden departure from the apartment, following an incident with a dog turd and a disgruntled lover, winding up in a garden where the cast of Sing For Your Life, an animal cabaret, reside. Headed up by Badger, the cabaret’s charming director and general disillusioned luvvie, Dog is introduced to each of the animal cast and it feels as though much of the show’s momentum relies of the increasingly comic ‘reveals’. It must be said that my eyes have yet to recover from a particularly gruesome striptease.
On the one hand the writing is funny and astute; the songs in particular are sharp, pointedly talking about animal welfare. Badger opens with a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang – My Baby Shot Me Down’ on the theme of badger culling and Clucky, the scatting diva hen, hilariously turns Britney Spear’s ‘I’m a Slave for You’ into a sexy indictment of mass battery farming. Such aptitude for written material seemed bizarrely absent in some of the dialogue and the whole opening scene for me felt awkwardly contrived and directed. For example, the owner’s lover jokes that the dog has a doggy smell ‘because he is a dog’, which causes him and the owner to guffaw in a sort of clichéd dig at the kind of people who buy expensive breeds as accessories.
In fact the wow factor only kicked in for me when the cabaret started about a third of the way through. Similarly the ending scenes where there’s a rat attack and Dog gets his revenge on his owner via the aid of a giant rabbit trap, are visually confusing and feel a bit amateur in how they’re technically executed.
I don’t doubt that much skill and care has gone in to transforming these once lifeless creatures into all singing and dancing puppets. And if I could see them better from where I was sitting, perhaps I would be even more impressed by this fact. It seems potentially that less care has gone into the puppets’ movement potential on stage and it’s this richness of really mimicking animal movements that I feel the lack of. For me, this would make up for a storyline that doesn’t quite compel. The exception to this is Matthew Maguire’s handling of the dog, conveying the puppy’s naiveté with subtle yet readable postures and characteristic doggy excitement in the wagging of the tail.
Having said all this, there are plenty of cracking cabaret numbers to make this an entertaining show and the cast are all strong singers. One of my favourite moments was the chorus of squirrels parodying the common opinion of them as grey pests to the tune of ‘Mr Sandman’, which was beautifully harmonised. MacMahon and Gates stood out for their solos, and the fun Gates’ has performing the drunken Foxy (a fox puppet, in case you were wondering) was laugh out loud gold.
Ultimately, this show is worth seeing for the very fact of the taxidermy. And whilst there isn’t so much of a story to support them, the same can be said for the puppet characterisations, the parts of the book which manage to unite a message with the madness, and the live band who provide a truly superb accompaniment.