By Mark Brown

Manipulate festival

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The first two evenings of the Manipulate festival of visual theatre, puppetry and animation (which concludes with the, sadly, disappointing Testroom at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre on Tuesday) were reminiscent of the little girl from the famous nursery rhyme by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. That is to say that when the programme was good it was very, very good, but when it was bad it was horrid.

The highlight of the opening night, by a distance, was the Scottish premiere of the superb German puppet theatre piece Wunderkammer (five stars). By turns, enchanting, enigmatic and humorous, its title refers to the Renaissance phenomenon of the cabinet of curiosities (specially made wooden cases containing fascinating objects).

The piece is comprised of a series of little scenes in which three performers (costumed as if they are particularly stylish, pre-industrial artisans) operate and interact with a diverse procession of extraordinary puppets.

A pair of disembodied golden hands plays with the long hair of the female performer. A puppet with the head and arms of a man, but the segmented body of a slithering insect, clings protectively to his coffin-shaped home. A striking blue figure floats in the air, its torso consisting of another human face.

The humour and inventiveness of this work are epitomised by the scene in which two little puppets (their bodies made from musical instruments) accompany a third puppet who, thanks to the clever use of objects in her construction, performs a belly dance.

Despite its extraordinary diversity, Wunderkammer achieves a sense of atmospheric coherence, partly through its use of beautifully tailored music, partly through the glorious consistency of its aesthetic style.

The German show was received with particular gratitude by the festival audience as it followed, in Extremely Pedestrian Chorales (one star), one of the least accomplished, most tedious and most self-satisfied works of theatre it has been my misfortune to see in a quarter century as a drama critic. The blisteringly unfunny creation of Scotland-based “artists” Karl Jay-Lewin and Matteo Fargion, it presents utterly unimpressive walking sequences which are prompted by pointlessly obscure fragments of text (such as “take courage, my weak ghost”) and sometimes accompanied (like Spike Milligan without the talent) by kazoos.

In an act of astonishing chutzpah, the show punctuates these “choreographies” (if we must dignify them with the term) with reasonable performances of chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach. The dreariest of hours, this unremittingly awful piece manages, simultaneously, to prompt both boredom and simmering rage.

Matters improved, glad to report, on day two. Intronauts (four stars), by English company Green Ginger, is a delightfully madcap piece of theatre. Juxtaposing very smart projections with defiantly low-tech, handmade theatre-making, it offers us a future in which tiny a little person (an intronaut) zooms around inside our body, ever ready to go to whatever organ (or, indeed, orifice) needs a little cleaning.

The English production was bettered, however, by Vu (five stars), a charming, deceptively simple show by French group Compagnie Sacekripa. In this irresistible one-man show, the wonderfully lugubrious Etienne Manceau plays a middle-aged man (an office worker tired of life, perhaps) who seeks solace in the little things of life.

Performing at the wee table from which he draws a series of props, Manceau performs what one might call the Olympics of small objects. His character is hilariously (almost painfully) obsessive.

The making of a cup of tea (including flying sugar lumps) becomes a routine of unimaginable complexity. The man knows how to enjoy himself, however. Tea is drunk as if it is alcohol, the smoke from burning paper is inhaled as if it is cannabis, a line of granulated sugar is ingested as if it were cocaine.

Ingenious, gorgeously idiosyncratic, brilliantly performed and very, very funny, Vu is the kind of show which (the antics of Messrs Jay-Lewin and Fargion notwithstanding) Manipulate has built its reputation upon.