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Big Baby, Terrapin Big Baby, Terrapin
photo Peter Matthew
A man and woman meet and fall in love. She’s a messy and impulsive scientist and he’s a kindly neat freak who’s prepared for any eventuality.

Encountering each other at a bus stop, he takes out a scarf to get warm and has a spare one for her to borrow. They go to the movies, she spills popcorn and later has a look at it under the microscope, revealing the landscape of tiny things to which her life is devoted. The pair share this moment and, in no time at all, they’re expecting a Big Baby (well, they’re expecting a normal size one probably, but life has other ideas).

This unusually long prelude at 10 minutes was inspired, says director Sam Routledge, by the pre-story in the Pixar animated film Up (2009). For me, there’s also a touch of French New Wave cinema. It works for two reasons. First, the two performers, Bryony Geeves and Kane Peterson, are charismatic presences on stage and have no trouble making us believe they are in love, even without the words for realistic character development. Second, they use their physicality in a comedic, expressive way preparing us for the puppetry that’s to follow.

Sadly, while Dad is outside the delivery room, a massive clock marking every dreadful second, Mum is in trouble. A doctor comes out to disclose that she didn’t make it through the delivery. It’s a disturbing beginning to a show for children, but of course there’s precedent. Fairytales often start with the loss of one or both parents. Suffice it to say there was no audible crying at the opening night performance I attended, so I’m going to assume the balance between melodrama and tragedy was correctly struck.

The baby appears as a sophisticated puppet designed by Katrina Gaskell. Unusually large, demanding and full of curiosity and energy, it’s never referred to as either ‘boy’ or ‘girl,’ which makes him/her difficult to talk about in a review, but it’s an interesting conceit. As an adult audience member, I’d like to see that notion explored a little. Yet child audiences easily accept that babies are not gender-specific; perhaps that says it all.

So Dad is left with a baby to look after and life to get on with, and the story proper begins, with the performer who played Mum returning to animate Big Baby, thereby giving a sense of ongoing connection. Of course, ghostly puppeteer/mother presence aside, it’s not easy for the father and child. The relationship is clearly a loving one—they have little rituals like rubbing noses—but they’re temperamentally so different that the Big Baby might as well be an alien. When Big Baby begins to feel threatened by a new presence, an ‘evil’ vacuum cleaner that Dad brings into the home, s/he runs away into nature. There s/he somehow grows even bigger, and returns to the city now a Giant Baby. It doesn’t really matter why the baby grows (it seemingly has to do with Mum’s spiritual influence), it’s a fun idea.

This show is performed by Geeves, Peterson and Maeve Mhairi MacGregor, who takes on the broadly comedic role of a childcare worker who is traumatised by looking after Big Baby. At the heart of the piece is the expressive, lovable Baby character, but additional elements of animation and digital puppetry provide textural layers and atmosphere.

Aside from a couple of poetic monologues, the show is non-verbal. As such, music and sound design is especially crucial. Composer Heath Brown adeptly takes us from whimsy to melancholy and back again and shifts into pop culture mode as required, as in the climactic showdown scene between Big Baby and arch-nemesis, the vacuum cleaner. It’s a Godzilla-scale battle, complete with slo-mo ‘bullet time’ moments and the inventive use of miniatures. It’s an absolute crowd-pleaser.

Terrapin Puppet Theatre, Big Baby, director Sam Routledge, writer Van Badham, designer Jill Munro, composer Heath Brown, lighting, audio-visual design Jason James, digital puppet designer Matt Daniels, video Sam Routledge, Matt Daniels; Theatre Royal, Hobart, 4-6 July

See also our interview with Terrapin's Sam Routledge

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. 40, 42

© Briony Kidd; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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