Chester Tuffnut is the absolute antithesis of other fictional moles I’ve encountered (namely, Mole from Wind in the Willows and Mr. Mole in Warner Bros 1994 animation Thumbelina). Chester is neither introverted nor short-sighted, but then he’s no ordinary mole – he’s the one and only tree mole in the whole world, the star attraction in our tour around Woodland World. Tree moles like swinging from branches more than scuttling underground, they love the sunshine and the spotlight, not hiding away, and rather than being nocturnal, they’re happy to be outside any time of the day or night. Chester, a long-armed, well-stuffed puppet in a shrunken woolly jumper, is as hyperactive as a 2-year-old who’s eaten one too many blue smarties, and has the linguistic limitations of a baby-talking Teletubby. Almost immediately, the audience have taken him under their wing – within a few moments, a girl nearby affectionately shakes her head, muttering ‘Silly Chester’, in response to his latest escapade. Perhaps Chester, who can be slightly too spirited with his adventures, a touch too forceful with potential playmates, and passionately avoidant of bedtime, reminds the young audience of themselves. But of course, they are older and wiser now, and so can sit back with a knowing smile, casting an experienced but benevolent eye over the exuberant animal’s antics, enjoying both his silliness and their brief opportunity to act as mentor. That’s the vibe I was getting, anyway.
This interesting audience-animal dynamic, and Robyn Wilson-Owen’s striking set and puppets, are why Chester Tuffnut works. There’s not too much by way of narrative: this is a day in the life of an extraordinary mole, in which we meet some of Chester’s neighbours, and watch his latest adventures. In this year’s run of shows, the trio of performers has been reduced to a duo, with Clare Fraenkel as Dr Rowan Root, an animal expert guiding us around the woodland environment, and Amy Tweed as the wiggle-dancing Chester, though both bring the full cast of creatures to life. There’s the snail with her patchwork, velvety shell, willing to say hello if you ask very gently – a sock puppet head unfurls, each sluggish wriggle of a finger making the antenna move in that slimy, snail-y, slow-motion way. A spider pauses her spinning to pop down from her web, the glove puppet scuttling appropriately. A track of focused ants hauling leaves crawl up and into the tree. Miriam Gillinson summed it up perfectly in her Guardian review last year: “There’s a really smart symbiosis between the material and personality of the animal puppets”.
The animals’ homes are just as impressive. A large, multi-textured tree trunk made up of different bits of board and bark, extends into branches that are each topped with an intriguing box. Chester lives in one, snuggling under his leafy blanket when he eventually settles down; a poorly bat is protected by another, a patterned curtain pulled down when she needs a rest. Wooden crates also cover the stage, and as we never meet the inhabitants it’s up to us to imagine them – who might enjoy that miniature playground? Which animal might like to pull a tiny book from its tiny bookshelf, before relaxing into a tiny armchair?
The end of a long day skateboarding and flying cars gives the boisterous Chester a chance to reflect. After 40 minutes of venturous fun, the show’s message – to appreciate stillness, to let the world passing by be enough sometimes, rather than constantly cooking up adventures – isn’t entirely convincing. But Chester Tuffnut is also about being self-aware and sensitive to others, and a chance to meet the animals at the end of the performance is an opportunity for the audience to put this lesson into practice. With Chester the extraordinary tree mole, Gomito Theatre have created a winning character in an entrancing woodland world – just about enough to mask the lack of storyline.
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