Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Bill’s 44th on the surface appears to be your own personal invitation to the celebration of Bill’s existence, but like any iceberg analogy – This was so much more than a party – A telescopic insight into the humble and thoughtful life of ‘Bill’ as he prepares for his guests to arrive; only to be greeted with the silence of an untouched door bell. Your heart will sink for this character, as the illusion of Bill as a puppet soon becomes a fully realised character! As the guests fail to arrive, Bill forms his own entertainment through beautifully choreographed puppetry – Even the carrot stick from the dunk and dip buffet makes a celebrity appearance!
Dorothy James, Andy Manjuck and Jon Riddleberger have created an imaginary world for us; full of surprises and giggles that are extremely authentic and relatable.
“What makes the show special is the intense comedy in the tragedy and the tragedy in the comedy.”
Remaining shows: 19th -27th August
Venue: Cowgate Underbelly
Bill’s 44th is an evolved idea that originally began in 2016; first came the head, then the other elements to follow as Manjuck states, “I was inspired by the Defunked Puppet Festival in Copenhagen, a company called Tinker Ting and the now no longer Pickled Image, who made a show called ‘Hunger’ – a puppet who won’t eat until he writes his masterpiece – the puppet design is very similar, the puppeteers moved like the puppet.” Like all artists affected by Covid 19, Bill’s 44th also felt the side effects of audience exposure – as the first formation of this piece was originally live streamed and performed to a restricted audience. It’s interesting as an audience member to then understand how the work evolved after this period, as loneliness does feature as a key theme – How many of us experienced a birthday or celebration on our own during covid or pre-covid for that matter? Co-creator James expresses how the piece changed,“Finishing the development during covid ultimately lead us wanting to provide some light relief; wanting to give Bill a happier ending.” What is interesting as before this event, the ending would have been more morbid – so thank goodness this wasn’t the case!
Walking into the Underbelly Theatre, it soon becomes apparent that we’re about to be part of the legendary Bill’s 44thbirthday party. The time – 8.40pm – Indicates that the show is due to begin in this small and humbling property where Bill resides. Banners are placed and spirits are poured, and we, like Bill; anticipate a large celebration. The sheer essence of Bill is ‘formed’ by two performers (James and Manjuck). James and Manjuck impressively embody the ‘bounce’ and ‘weight’ of this puppet, with timely pacing as they operate different sides of Bill’s physique. The puppet you soon see becomes this real human, with a bulging belly and distinguishable bold head. The co-creators of this puppet made a conscious choice to have minimalistic facial features, with supporting curves and indentations in the right places to show where the eyes and skull would be – This really added to the audiences imagination as we were relying on the essence of Bill to tell a story, through placement of his upper body and positioning on stage. Both puppeteers utilised their arms and legs to make the limbs of the puppet, absorbing Bill’s spirit through delicate reactive facial expressions that were both an extension of Bill, whilst remaining subtle and graceful.
From the on-set of the show, I was captivated by the technical placement of the puppet, all details communicating Bill’s ability to be a thoughtful human – with an acute sense of attention to detail. This was charmingly demonstrated in the poised placement of his moustache and ‘placement of space,’ when we’re (in this case Bill) seeking to look our best one seeks to look ‘cool’ as Bill changes his physical space as potential guests are due to arrive. We all can relate to that Baby moment (“I carried a water melon”) in Dirty Dancing when Patrick Swayze walks in – Well Bill is definitely channeling this! What transcends is the realisation of no guests, just an unassuming VCR tape. Who doesn’t get a sense of nostalgia when watching back the old VCR? Well, Bill definitely tries to – to the point of no return as the tape becomes mangled and completely unusable. But wait, a phone call? Poor Bill frantically waves helplessly across the stage with every ounce of his being attempting to get the phone. This could be a guest. This could be someone. But sadly, the phone comes off of the wall and no one, including Bill, would know who was calling. These moments within the show felt highly significant – how many of us have been stood up, disappointed or simply disheartened when an evening doesn’t materialise as we planned? Relatability is the key here, how can a puppet manage to instil reflection and a sense of identification within us all? This is a credit to the story-telling and conviction within the puppeteers.
I want to emphasise the sheer enjoyment and laughter we gain from this show, as we soon feel ‘assured’ by Bill that the night was worthwhile, as all the items suddenly become ‘guests’ at Bill’s party. This moment took a psychedelic turn, a cross between Kevin’s imaginative cardboard cutout party from Home Alone One verses The Mighty Boosh – If the people wont turn up, simply reimagine the people through the items you have! For a minute these moments allows Bill to fully engage and ‘move’ as if no one else is in the room – the ‘Dadesque’ style dancing makes the audience full of joy and merriment, we all know those moves, so why not dance like no one is there? What evolves however are friendly balloons turning psychotic, ‘munching’ their way through Bill’s delicately placed nibbles, becoming ferocious in temperament as the puppeteer Jon Riddleberger brilliantly shows the ‘unwanted crew’ who’re simply using Bill for his kind nature and free booze! This kind of piranha mentality escalates in to a perplexed confrontation with Bill, who desperately tries to calm his guests down, falling in love briefly – only to be rejected on his own birthday. This was a welcomed change of pace and demonstrated that puppetry can be highlights effective, and often is, when kept simple in atmospheric changes in lighting states by Jordan Wiggins.
Eamon Fogarty arranged an upbeat instrumental backing track that suited the character of Bill and his optimistic nature, at times the music felt purposeful and highly suited to the drama unfolding – allowing the audience to cheer along in their droves as Bill busted a move or two. At points, I would have liked to have seen moments of silence on stage to help with the pacing of the action slightly. Nevertheless, the music was beautifully placed and a welcomed change of energy when Bill’s Saboteur arrived from the womb!
This production was full of effortless hysterics, that was sprinkled in Bill’s past – A life once full of laughter and friendship which then manifests into loneliness and the dawning evolution of ‘aging.’ A particular highlight of this show was the moment Bill visualises his past, through the form of different sized miniature puppets, all heroically mimicking his conscientious nature (a workaholic on the brink of cracking something important) whilst rising up the foundations of a capitalist battle – these soon short successes are no longer acknowledged by the canned laughter of previous friends and the hair growing in Bill’s youth, through to adulthood – once thick and lustrous – Is now simply shedding. . . Gone. Where did time go? What did Bill do with his career? Was he genuinely happy? This was hard to tell. Within this beautiful moment James, Manjuck and Riddleberger worked with effortless synchronisation, marked with impeccable timing and manoeuvring of their puppets – No one can underestimate the peripheral vision required to ensure the successes of moments like this as Bill’s engagement with his former younger self was both moving and reflective. This was a highlight of the show, there is something so simplistic about the use of repetition and mechanical routines, in highlighting the ‘working man’s’ constraints with life and the fragility of time.
So if you’re wanting to attend this performance for the comedy or the sheer skill of the puppeteers, there is something for everyone, “You can take the emotional context, you can take the puppetry itself – or just the goofiness of it all,”Manjuck stated. I fully concur this ethos, you will not be disappointed and the atmosphere when the show ended resulted in happy faces and a standing ovation. Well done to all involved! I’m sure we all know a ‘Bill’ and you will definitely go away thinking that special empathetic souls, like Bill, should be celebrated – And what better way to do this than through innovative story-telling! Look out for the Night Fever Satire Carrot and Baby Bill (his saboteur, who seeks to cause destruction and havoc)! Utter joy!