TOURS: 2002 Company of Angels, 2005 In The Shadow of Trees, 2007 Little Leap Forward

In 1998 I received a postcard from Sandy Spieler, the Artistic Director of ‘In The Heart of the Beast’, a mask and puppet theatre based in Minneapolis. She wrote about a good friend of hers, an ‘awesome maker’, called Alison Duddle. After 5 years working with the US theatre company Alison was moving back to the UK with her husband Richard. Sandy strongly recommended Alison to me, and suggested that I might like to meet with her.

Alison visited late in 1998, and briefly helped on a Guided Imagery show. Later she helped by making some of the puppets for Harvest of Ghosts. She was indeed a very good maker, with a natural sense of draughtsmanship and design, as well as being genuinely excited by mask and puppet theatre. We also got on very well, both personally and as colleagues. It was inevitable that I would ask her to work with me on our next production.

During this period the Arts Council were becoming nervous about artist-led theatre companies. One of their anxieties was around ‘succession’ i.e. who would take over when the lead artist/director left or retired. It was soon clear that, if necessary, Alison had the potential to undertake this role and she was encouraged to develop her directing skills within Horse + Bamboo. Initially working with me on The Girl Who Cut Flowers.

2002: Company of Angels

With our next show, Company of Angels, Alison and I worked together closely. It was a sensible and natural development for our company. We shared equally the writing, designing, making and directing the show. It was very much a joint effort even though the original idea and outline had been inspired by a visit I made to an exhibition of paintings by Charlotte Salomon at the Royal Academy.

Salomon had been murdered in Auschwitz. Despite only being 26 she produced an amazing series of vivid gouaches telling the story of her life. Her visual story included the background to her immediate family; the growth of nazism, and the series of events that led her to death in a concentration camp. These Charlotte planned to be bound together as ‘Life. Or Theatre?’. It was an ambitious and almost operatic concept which included some text along with suggestions for music alongside her paintings.

Despite the grimness of the subject, Salomon’s work is full of life and colour, even humour. It’s a remarkable testament, and remains seriously under-appreciated. We worked with the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, who hold Salomon’s complete collection. We paid them for copyright for some of the material, but they wouldn’t allow any direct use of the images in our production. This forced us to re-imagine and re-make all aspects of her story. Although we decided to follow Charlotte Salomon’s style closely, in some ways the limitations imposed by the JH Museum liberated us from copying things too slavishly. Again, it was a very successful show, and understandably generated a lot of interest from Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors. As a result many of the shows included an introduction (or post-show discussion) from survivors.

It also led to a tour of the USA in 2004. We used a new US cast, with the exception of Jonny Quick, a regular performer and maker with Horse + Bamboo, who had also been in the UK production. Alison’s ‘In The Heart of the Beast’ contacts in Minneapolis were invaluable, and she went back to the USA in order to direct the show and its subsequent tour.

Reviews of 'Company of Angels'
A hypnotic theatre piece, rich with dream-like imagery. “Company of Angels” achieves a delicate balancing act. Salomon’s story is undeniably sad but it also manages to highlight those moments where the artist experienced genuine happiness. ~ Big Issue Review (UK)

Thank you so much for your marvellous and creative performance…The whole show was amazing and spoke evocatively about Charlotte’s paintings. Wonderful. ~ Professor Lesley Ferris, Chair of Theater, Ohio State University

[Company of Angels] is one of the most magic, sweet, profound and qualitative performances I’ve seen…. Combining the cruelty of the reality of a war, with the magic of the innocent world of a child, you spoke right to my heart…. It was so excellent, I almost forgot that the heads were masks! ~ Nassia Choleva, Exeter University (UK)


2005: In The Shadow of Trees

In 2005 I wrote a script that providing an opportunity for Alison to direct it herself. We had an inquiry for a children’s Christmas show at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio, and my story, In The Shadow of Trees fitted the bill perfectly. Alison directed as planned, and I designed and made the set. We both contributed to the masks and puppets. Chris Davies wrote and played music, with the Exchange’s Richard Owen devising an impressive lighting design.

The resulting show was a big success and it won two MEN awards, for the design and for the production. My stage design was included in an exhibition of contemporary stage designs at the Victoria & Albert. In The Shadow of Trees toured for two years.

2007: Little Leap Forward

With Alison increasingly confident as a director, it was also becoming clearer that her first love was for children’s stories. She was influenced by some of the excellent illustrations in many children’s books, always looking at the possibility of using them as a source of inspiration for her theatre work. Somehow during this time she hooked up with Barefoot Books. Barefoot was a publisher that concentrated on books for children, and Alison got into discussion with Tessa Strickland, their founder. They were about to publish Little Leap Forward, which was a new venture for them as it was an autobiographical story for older children and adults. The author was Guo Yue, who had already achieved some fame as a Chinese classical bamboo flute virtuoso – and a chef.

We met with Yue and his wife Clare Farrow, who had translated the book, in late 2007. It was decided that Clare would work closely with Alison on the stage play. Meanwhile I would I design and build the set for the touring production. Yue would also work closely with Loz Kaye, our Musical Director, on the music. Yue contributed his own flute parts, which were central to the story. By now we were mainly touring without musicians, using recorded soundtracks as a way of cutting costs. Technical advances in sound equipment and recording had made this far more acceptable. It was never a complete substitute for having live musicians on stage, and whenever possible we would revive this practice.

Guardian Review
4.6.2009 Little Leap Forward **** By Lyn Gardner
The Chinese flautist Guo Yue, whose name means Little Leap Forward, was eight when Mao Zedong declared the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Like many intellectuals, his school-teacher mother was declared a counter-revolutionary and sent to the country to be “re-educated” and dig mud out of the river.

Inspired by the children’s book of the same name, but suitable for all ages, Horse + Bamboo’s show – a ravishing, wordless mix of mask work, puppetry, shadow play and music – tells Guo Yue’s story. It captures all the intensity of being eight: the brightness of the colours, the vividness of sound, the swooping shifts between exhilaration and sudden fear.

The story is linear, but this fleeting hour is so textured that the overall effect is impressionistic. The cut-out style paper design is just one of many visual pleasures: Mao’s marching Red Army is depicted by tiny puppets springing out of the kitchen drawers; the perspective is constantly shifting – one minute you feel as if you are looking down on red fish swimming up a river, the next you are watching a tiny puppet bird crossing the wide sky. The song bird, captured and caged, becomes a metaphor for Guo Yue himself, his lost mother and for the music career that eventually leads him leave China. The violence of the Cultural Revolution is never shirked.

The piece is full of grace and simple beauty – if it has a fault, it is that the storytelling is sometimes a little unclear, and it is not always easy to work out who all the characters are: it’s worth reading the programme beforehand. But this is a lovely, maverick show that focuses on ordinary lives overtaken and trampled by history.

Alison Duddle and Bob Frith

After this Alison and I continued to work together, both on touring shows and on other aspects of creative and planning work for the company. However, her love of children’s stories meant that we tended to increasingly look in slightly different directions after Little Leap Forward. Alison also became more involved in developing the Boo as a venue and as a centre for puppetry, especially for young children and families. I focused on writing, planning and directing productions and events for older audiences.


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