The Terrible Infants begins with a long uncomfortable pause, as if something has gone wrong. The subsequent sight of a man emerging from a box is a funny and quirky way to break the ice. The show is a polished collection of short stories by Les Enfants Terribles.
Dame Judi Dench narrates part of the production. She wasn’t physically present but her instantly recognisable voice prompted excited whispers in the stalls. The play is a series of short, twisted tales. Some have a clear moral message, whereas others are more dark and ambiguous.
Ingenious puppetry takes centre stage in the form of exquisitely designed creatures who play some of the characters. The puppets are nightmarish but don’t actually scare the audience. It’s a lot like a Tim Burton film. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are a visual treat. Even the ugly ones are cute, like animals in a zoo.
The most poignant story is that of a boy who is so quiet and anonymous that he is forgotten by his friends and family, and begins to fade out of existence altogether. Represented by a hooded puppet, he has an endearing presence, despite having no visible facial features apart from a pair of glasses.
The individual short plays which constitute Infants are equal parts funny and horrific. A girl who loves to make things up aquires a freakishly long tail, which grows proportionally to her lies. A child who is always nattering on about herself, and ignoring others, ends up with a beehive on her head.
The heavy white makeup, grand period costumes and beautifully creepy puppets give the show its own aesthetic, which is part circus, part musical theatre. The live score, played on banjos, violins and the piano, feels Parisian. Rhymes and repetition are the order of the day, in the songs and narration. It is stressed many times that a young boy (who needless to say meets a grizzly fate) forbidden from consuming junk food, must decide between “his mum and his tum”.
The show made clever use of silhouettes to convey its message in ever more charming and ramshackle ways. The staging was dynamic, with different props and pieces of the set constantly moving around and being used for different purposes.
The Terrible Infants is a mix of majesty, big gurning facial expressions and music which sounds like it belongs in a runaway parade. Performed by the company many times around the world since 2007, although not at all in the past five years, it sees Les Enfants Terribles return to their roots. It’s a spellbinding piece, made up of belly laughs, ghoulishly harsh punishments, and stunningly realised craftsmanship.
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