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King Joffrey, a Scottish koala bear and a Jane Austen loving, guitar-strumming narrator walk onto a spaceship. No, it’s not the start of a Ross Noble joke, but just some of the bizarre characters on display in Collapsing Horse’s latest production Bears In Space, now playing at the Soho Theatre. (Ok, King Joffrey’s not really in it, just actor Jack Gleeson playing the deranged dictator Premier Nico, amongst other outlandish characters). It’s no wonder Gleeson came back from his supposed acting self-exodus for this – a play that’s practically bursting with ideas; a honey pot of comedy, thick with wit and absurdity.
Suddenly unfrozen from a cryogenic sleep after many thousands of years, the pair must investigate a nearby suspicious planet in the hope they can bring back enough energy to get their ship moving again.
But this is a four man cast, not just Gleeson’s game, and each member shines in this tale of puppetry and planets. The Story Keeper (Cameron Macaulay) introduces us through song and eccentric outbursts to the narrative – that of two bears in… that big starry celestial thing we call space. Then, fed through chapters and spools of story we follow the fate of these friends – the aforementioned Scottish koala (Aaron Heffernan) and his Russian polar bear spaceship comrade (Eoghan Quinn).
Suddenly unfrozen from a cryogenic sleep after many thousands of years, the pair must investigate a nearby suspicious planet in the hope they can bring back enough energy to get their ship moving again. Most importantly to our loved up Celtic Koala, they must prevent their frozen Captain (the voice of Genevieve Hulme Beaman) from melting and spreading the dreaded “illness” that forced her to freeze herself in the first place.
If the plot sounds whimsical then its playful style forged by Director Dan Colley only enhances the frenetic silliness of it all. Most of the characters are indeed puppets handled on stage Avenue Q style by switching cast members – which whilst appearing slightly raggedy and in need of some TLC (Tender Loving Carebears) are expertly modelled by the cast. Aaron Heffernan’s strong range of comedy accents in particular is impressive, but everyone pitches in with their own creative twists. One specific scene when our Russian bear is thrown into jail is full of hilarious moments, as we’re introduced in quick succession to several boisterous puppets from an Irish emu and a Spanish bear with barely any time to (ahem) paws for thought.
Indeed, the sheer glee of the whole thing knows no bounds. There are projections on sheets and sudden songs and pictures rolled up to depict endless backdrops of dusty planet. If it all feels a little bit makeshift and lo-fi then that’s seemingly the idea. Much like the puppets themselves Quinn’s play may be slightly rough around the edges, but its utter likeability wins though, from one zany puppet packed interlude to the next.