Every so often, a theatre work meets and exceeds all expectations. Barking Gecko‘s world premiere of Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories not only ticks all the boxes, but it also goes beyond just being a wonderfully produced show. It wends its charming little way into your heart, and takes you on a bittersweet little journey to an enchanting place.
Adapted for the stage by Dan Giovannoni and director Luke Kerridge from Bamberts Buch der verschollenen Geschichten by Reinhardt Jung, and brought to life by a dream team of creatives, it’s no exaggeration to say there’s a touch of magic about this production. The titular character, Bambert (a puppet) is realised through the narrative told by Igor Sas as Mr. Bloom, the exotic food purveyor whose shop sits underneath Bambert’s room. He’s brought to life by lead puppeteer Tim Watts along with a little help from his friends Amanda McGregor, Jo Morris and Nick Maclaine. Together, they tell the story of the little hermit Bambert, a reclusive writer who never leaves his room, but whose imagination stretches around the world.
Bambert knows nothing about life outside his attic, so he decides to tear pages from the book of stories he’s been writing, attach them to little paper balloons, and send them out into the world as his emissaries. He’s hoping the’ll return to him, postmarked from the places where the stories should be set so that they will in turn become real. One by one, the stories find their way back to Bambert, and one by one, they come to life before us.
The bi-level set, designed by Jonathon Oxlade, is a compact but intricate wonderland. There are a hundred small treasures to discover in its shelves, from brown paper packages tied up with string, to a cuckoo clock, to jars of exotic foods; you’ll have fun trying to decide which one is your favourite thing. Igor Sas as Mr. Bloom is a warm, friendly narrator, with just the right amount of kook to keep things interesting; his affection for Bambert is clear and catching. And once Bambert pokes his little round head on the scene, he’s met with a round of coos and awws from the audience. He is aww-fully cute! The audience is immediately won over, and we want nothing more than to see Bambert’s hopes and dreams fulfilled.
The stories come in short vignettes performed by Watts, McGregor, Morris and Maclaine. Watts makes an uproarious entrance thanks to an audacious pair of bloomers and a couple of long, gangly white legs. He’s a Spanish king whose wise daughter (McGregor) is looking for a prince, and is met with a succession of wholly unworthy contenders, played with gusto, flair and plenty of moustache hair by Nick Maclaine. Jo Morris is as big and lively as ever, which McGregor counters with a grounded, solid performance.
The stories also take us to much darker and troubling places. First we visit a fairly scary English waxworks inhabited by a murderer and a poet, run by a bloodthirsty mistress. We also visit a Russian prison where political prisoners are thrown into darkness for writing down anti-establishment opinions. And we end up in a chilling winter scene from WWII, where children are marched all night through the freezing snow. The tales are moral and historical reminders of tragedies of the Western world, and though they tell of harrowing conditions, they highlight the human condition, focusing on resilience rather than defeat.
It’s a bit of an emotional wringer, and probably a tearjerker for many adults. As for the kiddos, they’ll understand what they need to from this piece. It’s smart enough for older kids and active enough for the younger ones. There will be things, ideas, lessons that escape each age range, but by the same token, there are many layers of material to latch onto, and it’s so chock full of captivating spectacle that everyone will take away something special from the show.