Edinburgh Fringe 2019
This gentle show is about the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson told through BSL signing and puppetry by Shinehouse Theatre, a company that prides themselves on inclusivity. It is a low-key 40 minutes based on a short novel by esteemed Taiwanese author, Huang Chunming.
The plot is pretty simple: in 1960s rural Taiwan a young boy leaves his grandparents to return to his carpentry apprenticeship but his grandfather has one request, the next time the boy comes home he’d really appreciate it if the boy brought back a fish. I don’t want to spoil it but the rest of the tale really is about this fish and the boy’s endeavour to bring it home to the mountains. The story definitely contains a social commentary and a study of generational differences but the impact of the narrative is perhaps slightly lost without deeper cultural knowledge, a knowledge that I do not have. It would also benefit from some more light and shade – a little laughter to counteract the solemn tone.
However, my difficulty connecting might have been down to the level of input I was experiencing and the struggle to know where to look. The boy is played by a puppet, very softly puppeteered by two performers, his dialogue is provided in Taiwanese Mandarin by another performer and is signed in BSL by another performer; the actor playing grandfather signs BSL himself but his dialogue is performed by another actor. Then, there is an additional performer on stage moving scenery and providing narration and the English translation of all dialogue is projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. For a seemingly simple plot, there is a great deal happening on stage.
Having said that, the performers are all completely convicted throughout and very engaging to watch. Their highly emotive reactions helped me to understand the story and the difficulty that the boy and the grandfather have expressing their love for one another. I found it hard to empathise with the boy puppet as he is nearly featureless, nevertheless, there is a school of thought to support this choice – that it gives the audience space to project their own emotions onto the puppet.
The costumes are all nicely linked by a muted colour palette that suits this period piece – like looking back at sepia photographs. The set is charmingly naive with small, well painted bits of scenery moved on and off stage by hand. Combining these elements with the plain puppet, the design evokes the atmosphere of a simpler but tougher time.
When I saw this show the audience was not very large and it was difficult to gauge their reaction. Personally, I really admire Shinehouse Theatre’s desire to make an accessible performance and the actors’ honest performance, yet, I did find it somewhat underwhelming. There were touching moments but, overall, I was not captivated by the storytelling partly due to being lost in the battle between voice, surtitle and BSL. Fish is a production with beautiful intentions and a talented cast – with a bit of editing, some more tonal variation and greater time developing the puppet it could be a very good show.