In another life, Mervyn Millar must have been an animal whisperer. War Horse puppetry associate and director of this new interpretation of Ted Hughes’ Crow poems, Millar is tuned into behaviour and movement like a star pianist to his keys. As the crow in this production hops, pecks and flies, it is as if a real bird has been drafted onto the stage.
Millar is helped in his task by the exquisite puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company UK - the new, sister venture of the South African original. As in Hughes’ poetry cycle, in which the crow is born and dies many times over, there are several puppets to represent the bird. A life-size crow hopping around the slag heap set gives way to huge feathers carried by the dancers in sequence and then to a bird’s head worn as a mask.
Visuals aside, however, the production never fulfils expectations. Although the performers’ readings of the poems are solid, they fail to illuminate the work in a new or meaningful way. Ben Duke’s dance sequences confuse the piece, and at several points the audience cannot be sure how these duets relate to the action. Indeed, the scrappiness of the dance only serves to highlight the puppets’ intense beauty.
Taking on Hughes’ poetry for dramatic interpretation is a tall order, and Handspring is only partially successful here. All the show’s bells and whistles - the dance, the projections - stop the audience from developing the kind of emotional response we had to Joey in War Horse. The puppets are inspirational, why weren’t they put front and centre here?