I know I’m not on my own when I say that I’ve always found puppets scary. I trace it back to watching a black and white film from 1945 called Dead of Night. It’s the classic ‘scary dummy’ tale, where you’re not quite sure if the puppet is alive, the ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) is bonkers, or a bit of both. Encountering the film Magic (starring Anthony Hopkins) – shortly after – sealed my fate and if that wasn’t enough, Steven Spielberg then inserted a terrifying clown puppet into Poltergeist, purely for my benefit, which resulted in sleepless nights for months.
But isn’t being scared great? It’s not too pleasant later on, when you’re in bed and wondering about little noises and movements, but the thrill of the fright is worth it.
Becoming an adult didn’t see me growing out of this ‘childish’ fear either. I used to stay at a house where I had to walk past a display case of Victorian dolls on my way to bed. I was absolutely certain that they used to move around after I’d gone to bed and I convinced myself once that I’d heard one giggle. I still believe this to be true.
Having seen the flyer, with three pairs of puppets’ eyes staring malevolently back at me, I attended Pickled Image’s production of The Shop of Little Horrors at Bury Met with the same degree of trepidation that I used to reserve for the Ghost Train at Platt Fields fair.
It was a great little production that combined humour and the macabre perfectly. As we waited for the start, we were treated to a creepy score that brought memories of the incidental music from The Hammer House of Horror.
The tale begins with an introduction to Mr Grimlake in his Emporium of Novelties – a shop that serves as the set throughout. He potters around, working on his puppets and occasionally talking to someone who doesn’t reply. He’s not getting any younger and has advertised for an assistant who’ll share his love and passion for his strange dolls.
The daft but keen Eric enters the shop and the story unfolds.
I loved the whole show, but the work of the two performers – with and without the dummies – was the highlight. Dik Downey, as Mr Grimlake, cut a bizarre figure who veered between a charming frailty and a frightening intensity with unsettling speed. At times he was like a cross between Count Arthur Strong and Ronnie Barker’s Arkwright from Open All Hours, but even at his most bumbling he projected an underlying menace.
Adam Blake as Eric hinted at hidden complexity throughout. He started off as lovably simple but took us with him on his own little journey into darkness.
I don’t want to give too much of the game away, but Pickled Image knew how to push your buttons and there were points throughout the 70 minute performance where the crowd audibly shuddered with discomfort at something they’d spotted. I’ll just say ‘independent movement’ and leave you to see for yourself.
The ability to tell a tale of terror while also insisting on humour throughout is a well-loved British tradition which is also a bit of a tightrope walk.
Go and see it when it’s next on. When you get home, lock any of your children’s toys that look faintly human into a cupboard. Then put some earplugs in so you can’t hear them chatting to each other about what they’re going to do to you when you’re asleep.
Review by Charlie Bell
What: The Shop of Little Horrors
Where: The Met, Bury, Bury town centre