The Roald Dahl centenary celebrations seem to have seeped into the subconscious of The House of Stray Cats: The Dream Factory is about a little girl called Sophie and dreams caught in jars, drawing parallels with The BFG. The only giant here, however, is a huge spider that lumbers into the little girl’s night-time imaginings. The ‘Dream Factory’ element would be lost if it weren’t for the show’s title; instead, the structure seems to be a sequence of Sophie’s dreams, a convenient device that allows for random characters and events to sprout out of her mind and onto the stage, though the plot does not work hard enough to deserve this liberty. Sophie’s final dream suggests a narrative arc that is never clearly established in the beginning – we know that Sophie can’t sleep, but why?
The dreams themselves are quite lengthy, and though the production highlights the experiential elements of the performance as a highlight (“immersive, sensory”), Sophie’s exploration would benefit from a sense of purpose or additional plot. The story’s emotional landscape is fairly flat – even when Sophie meets a massive creepy crawly, the point seems more to show us what the magnificent spider puppet can do, and the two are almost immediately on friendly terms.
In fact, whilst all the puppets are truly gorgeous, they are constantly fighting for attention – Sophie’s climbing and clambering across the set doesn’t take the story anywhere but it does show off impressive feats of puppeteering from a tight team of performers. The three puppeteers – Katriona Brown, Maia Kirkman-Richards, Nicole Black – are extremely vigilant, making sure that every limb is animated correctly at every moment. But to this end, the performers seem very aware of their own movements, and in turn so is the audience: measured rather than smooth, calculated rather than flowing, the magic trick of visible puppeteering – the human performers somehow being both present and melting into the background – is never achieved and the characters struggle to breathe. The Dream Factory is a showcase for their technical expertise, but neither the plot nor the puppets truly come to life.
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