We are now halfway through the Fringe, and already there is the danger of Fringe fatigue settling in for audiences and actors alike. But occasionally it is worth pinching yourself, and remind you to wake up to the magic you are surrounded by at this Festival. Lula Del Ray, from the virtuoso Fringe favourites Manual Cinema, is a show worth pinching yourself for. Four projectionists continually manipulate acetate puppets on three OHPs in a precise ballet of minuscule detail, accompanied by a live soundtrack and silhouetted actors. Last year, Manual Cinema created a sell-out storm with ghost story Ada/Ava. This year, their subject is perhaps less dramatic – a country music-infatuated teenager living in a desert caravan – but the real show is the absolute dexterity of the team. Particular attention should be given to onstage sound operator and vocalist Maren Celest, whose moment in the spotlight after playing a supporting role for so long gave the show one of its emotional peaks.
If you’ve never seen Manual Cinema’s work before, then it is worth noting that this truly is cinematic puppet theatre. The simultaneous use of three individual OHPs allows the company to cross-cut and overlay scenes, creating moving filmic juxtapositions. The puppets themselves are surprisingly emotive too, although occasional slip ups help to remind us that they are being animated live. You know a company’s has a supreme attention to detail when a shadow puppet has moving eyelashes. These are partnered by the stellar work of the projectionists who also create silhouettes against the projected backdrops. The result is a combination between Charleroi Danses’ Kiss & Cry, and Familie Floz.
A problem that dogs both those companies, and which is also a concern here, is in whether or not an almost totally visual theatre can convey complicated narratives. Gecko Theatre’s beautiful The Dreamer suffers in a similar way – there are sequences both in that show and in Lula Del Ray which feel like a repetitive demonstration of one key character trait. Here, the first third of the show drags a little, as Lula and her mother clash in the confines of their caravan. But with the intrusion of the outside world, through a faulty TV set broadcasting ghostly western folk, the show develops into something with surprising emotional heft. Lula Del Ray is a story about loneliness, about idols, and what it might mean to an isolated individual to have someone speak to their soul from thousands of miles away. The show itself speaks to anyone who has ever had a hero, and does so without saying a single word.
Personally, I feel that Manual Cinema’s form has the potential for narratives with a slightly wider imaginative scope. There are touches of Western folk sci-fi here in Lula Del Ray, especially through the sublime soundtrack, but it reminds broadly bound to the real world. Freed from the constraints of so many other companies, I would love to see Manual Cinema paired with more fantastical material. That said, Lula Del Ray contains a brilliant and surreal twist on the old advice never to meet your heroes, which plays to the strangeness that is this company’s strength. I can safely say there is nothing else like them.