The eponymous protagonist of Lori Hopkins’ production is an adventurous aviator inspired by the pioneering Amy Johnson. When the brave pilot crash lands on an unknown island she is fascinated by its unusual terrain and inhabitants, traversing seas and deserts, and encountering both elephants and spaceships. Ostensibly, this play is about exploring a place, but watching the show, it’s real focus seems to be exploring puppetry.
The strange island is a convenient backdrop for a show driven not so much by narrative, but as an opportunity to showcase each puppet’s potential. Creating a world where anything is possible ensures that any puppet, event or action can be included. The aviator is a marionette, a type of puppet I’ve rarely seen on stage, deftly animated by sole performer Hopkins. Hopkins also controls the show’s other creatures, including a beautifully crafted rod puppet of a menacing crow, a shimmering shoal of fish who all move as one, and a dancing elephant with a shoe cleverly hidden inside its torso, so that its body can be easily moved and manipulated with Hopkins’ foot. The pilot has to charter a boat, swim through water, dance in a desert, and float in a suddenly gravity-less atmosphere, all of which she undertakes with aplomb, as Hopkins expertly manoeuvres the strings. It becomes clear that why any of this is happening isn’t the point; how it happens – with ingenious puppets and dexterous puppeteering, in which the flick of a foot or a light touch on a string can breathe life into formerly inanimate materials – is.
Given her circumstances, the pilot responds remarkably calmly, seeming only to feel curious about the new environment, rather than concerned about her situation – recently having crashed and subsequently lacking food, shelter and an obvious way to get either. The blurb suggests this is a play about trying to get home, but that doesn’t seem to be the case while watching: the Explorer is just enjoying looking around, rather than trying to find a way out. It’s either an extremely mindful response to a crisis or it’s emotionally unconvincing storytelling, and another indication that narrative plays second fiddle to medium.
A final giveaway is the 10 minute Q&A session that follows the 20-minute performance. It is mainly Hopkins asking the questions, quizzing the audience about the puppets – how they work, what they can do – whilst also giving them a closer look, revealing impressive design secrets with very obvious passion.
As a piece of theatre, the overall experience is unsatisfying – the production is a string of ideas with little attempt to hang them together. But as a piece of puppetry evangelism, a demonstration of the impressive range and capabilities of puppeteering as a performance art, The Explorer is far more successful.
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