STEAMPUNCH: The Astonishing Adventures of a Steampunk Puppet

Dunedin Gasworks Museum, Dunedin

14/03/2015 - 15/03/2015

Dunedin Fringe 2015

Production Details

SteamPunch is an exciting new steampunk puppet extravaganza. The production features the adventures of hapless inventor Septimus Punch and his feisty suffragette wife Judy.

Join the charismatic Mr Punch as he outwits the Law, runs rings around the Devil, flies to the Moon, and attempts (unsuccessfully) to stop his wife from voting!

A show that will enchant young and old alike, in the atmospheric surrounds of Dunedin’s Gasworks Museum.

WARNING: Mr Punch is likely to be particularly naughty during this show.

DUNEDIN GASWORKS MUSEUM, 20 Braemar Street, Dunedin 
TIMES: SAT 14 MAR:6:00pm  
SUN 15 MAR: 12:00pm
SUN 15 MAR: 1:30pm
SUN 15 MAR: 3:00pm
PRICE: $5.00 – $10.00

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Theatre , Puppetry ,

30mins +

A grand old tradition reinvented with aplomb

Review by Terry MacTavish 15th Mar 2015

When I was eight I must have been very naughty, because the teacher barred me from our longed-for class treat, a real live puppet show.  I was devastated.  I may have only read about puppet shows, but I absolutely knew it would be utterly magical, an experience like no other.  Thankfully, this enchanting production of SteamPunch goes some way towards assuaging my grief over that lost opportunity, conjuring up a traditional Punch-and-Judy Show with a mad steampunk twist and giving it the perfect setting in the gloriously restored Gasworks Museum. 

During the 2013 Fringe I reviewed the spectacular Mr Faust & Dr Jabberwocky: A steampunk fire-fable, which boasted a huge cast spilling into every corner of the Gasworks.  SteamPunch is on a much smaller scale, with only two operators to conceal themselves in the neat puppet booth.  Nevertheless, in its more intimate way it is just as well suited to the unique and beautiful venue, into which we are welcomed by Ann Barsby of the Southern Heritage Trust, offering, naturally, glasses of spiced punch. 

For Septimus Punch has been reconstructed as an Inventor, that hero of the Victorian science-fiction that inspired steampunk, and the world he inhabits is firmly placed in the heyday of the Victorians which was also the heyday of our own Gasworks. The gleaming machines pulsating around us seem part of his laboratory, and though instantly recognisable with his familiar hooked nose, Punch sports a top hat with goggles, and a shiny striped waistcoat beneath his cape.

In his clever re-scripting of the time-honoured story, Jonathan Cweorth, a luminary of the Dunedin Medieval Society, demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the nineteenth century too. Indeed I feel he has improved considerably on the original Punch, who, originating in ancient Roman buffoonery, evolved into a dashing Commedia Dell Arte character, then crossed from Italy to England in time for Samuel Pepys to commend a marionette version as ‘very pretty’, and ended up a glove puppet in seaside booths.  

By then, despite the occasional topical reference, the story was little more than an excuse for Punch to whack everyone with his stick: wife, baby, policeman, judge, the odd crocodile, and even the Devil.

There’s still plenty of violence to keep the fascinated youngsters in the crowd chortling (the baby-sitting joke is new to them!) but Cweorth treats us to a whole world of wonderful Victorian characters.  Septimus Punch’s wife may be the bullied Judy, but she is a determined suffragette now, and takes no nonsense from Punch.  His consumption of the fashionable drink absinthe raises a spirit that can quote Oscar Wilde, Sherlock Holmes is summoned to find the missing baby, and Queen Victoria herself comes magnificently to the party.

The puppets themselves are finely crafted and costumed by Cweorth to display idiosyncratic personalities, though perhaps a paler backcloth would show the often black-clad characters to greater advantage.  Alan Edwards zestfully provides live mood-music, giving the operators time to change gloves and roles.  Each new scene is ingeniously developed, with impressive special effects for Punch’s bold trip to the moon in search of a way to get the better of Judy. 

I am intrigued to see that Cweorth has left in the really rather cruel tricking of the Hangman, an episode that political correctness had caused to be dropped in England. I note that it doesn’t seem to disturb any of the cherubs surrounding me, two of whom, Chloe and Oliver I believe, are in full steampunk regalia, including top hat and sky blue crinoline. 

While the children are following the fast-paced story with delight, many of the lines are aimed at their parents, and the ripples of laughter rewarding each political hit swell to a roar when the joke involving eggs that hold our future leaders reaches its climax.  My guest, who used to watch those English seaside ‘Punch-and-Judy’s, is clearly delighted to witness a grand old tradition reinvented with such aplomb. 

Septimus is operated by the multi-talented Cweorth, who wisely has eschewed the ‘swazzle’ (something like a kazoo) that gave traditional Punch his annoyingly squeaky voice.  Septimus Punch may behave badly, as the programme warns us, but with his strong voice and a little pizzazz, Cweorth cunningly keeps us on his side. 

He is nobly supported by Rachel Chin, who, though her voice is a little lost just at first, quickly gains strength and confidence and ensures her feisty Judy gives as good as she gets. Both actors manipulate the puppets adroitly, and are adept at switching characters to keep the narrative flowing.

Craig Storey, who made a splendidly slimy Dr Jabberwocky two festivals ago, is this time competently operating lighting, sound, and (it says so on the programme) ‘munitions’. Very dramatic munitions too, that involve actual fire, and elicit excited cries from the smaller audience members. 

Storey and the operators are happy to explain and even demonstrate their tricks after the half-hour show.  Chloe and Oliver, chaperoned by their elegant steampunk aunt, very bravely allow real fire explosions to happen on their little hands. I am glad there was no mean teacher to prevent them from having an experience that certainly would have seemed magical to me when I was eight, and still has the power to charm me today.  

So, all you aunts, you know your duty.  This Punch-and-Judy Show is special: don’t let the little ones miss it!


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