The Devil and Mr Punch, Barbican, London

It seems apt that Mr Punch should share an anniversary year with Charles Dickens. While the great novelist is celebrated 200 years after his birth, in on his coat-tails sneaks the dubious braggart Mr Punch, recorded by diarist Samuel Pepys 350 years ago. We see him less often than we used to (he was once a staple of seaside entertainment), which is scarcely surprising: with his lust for instant gratification, his violent, wife-beating, law-evading streak and his sinister cry of “That’s the way to do it!” he is a pretty unpalatable character. But Improbable, ever inventive, mark his anniversary and do so with their inimitable panache. Their show, directed by Julian Crouch and devised by Crouch and the company, becomes a tribute not just to Punch but to vaudeville theatre and street entertainment.

They set up stall in the Pit with what appears to be a travelling show. The audience is faced with a decorative wood-panelled wall, peppered with curtained windows and little trap-doors, through which puppets and props will pass. We are to see a Punch and Judy show as presented by down-at-heel itinerant entertainers Messrs Harvey and Hovey. These bowler-hatted, tail-coated vaudevillians are rarely in full command of their own complex stage directions and finally wind up, exhausted, confessing that they don’t like puppets.

What follows, through their rather ramshackle narrative, festooned with minor mishaps, is the tale of how Mr Punch is brought before the law to answer for his crimes and is finally sent down to Hell. But as Harvey and Hovey struggle to tell their tale and keep control of their puppets, Mr Punch, sharp and shifty as ever, cheats death and persuades the Devil to take a break, leaving him in charge of Hell. He is, presumably, still among us.

It is an ingenious, surreal piece of theatre, chiefly enjoyable for its mix of the farcical and the macabre, and for its quizzical approach to the relationship between the puppeteer and his puppets. It is a bit of a long joke, however, and the deliberate meandering of the show makes it feel over-extended and baggy in places. Not all the digressions warrant their inclusion.

The performances are nimble and funny, however, and the puppets (designed by Crouch with Jessica Scott) are creepily good, none more so than Mr Punch. A grotesque, beady little character with the malevolent watchfulness of a crow, Punch, appropriately, has the last laugh here.

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