at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 10th May 2012
In Blind Summit’s The Table, we are told we are going to be ‘treated’ to a twelve-hour retelling of the story of Moses by a puppet. Thankfully, this never turns out to be the case, for to do so would be a rather silly idea. Although in The Cardinals Stan’s Cafe don’t go to quite the same lengths, they still seem to think a two-hour-plus rendition of a Christian history of the world using a model-sized theatre is a worthy concept for theatre. But even if there is a smattering of good ideas in their production, the overall feeling is one of tedium and pointlessness.
The framing device which is used involves a group of three cardinals performing the Bible, the Crusades and recent history within a small puppet theatre using a myriad of props and sets where they take the roles of the characters in the tales. The first act begins with Genesis and ends with the Crucifixion, whilst the second act focusses more on the stories of the Holy Land. Although we watch the performers throughout, however, very little is made of their problems whilst staging their show. It has the potential to be a sort of Christian Noises Off, but fails at the first hurdle by placing all the attention on the puppet show.
This wouldn’t be a bad thing if what was being staged was entertaining, but it’s mainly repetitive nonsense. Granted, this is part of the point (history repeats itself etc), but director James Yarker fails to comment on this in an intelligent way. The jokes within the show itself are lazy and familiar and the gags externally seem to have had very little time spent working on them. We’d forgive the puppet show of its ineptitude if there was something else worth focussing on.
Gerard Bell, Graeme Rose and Craig Stephens as the cardinals of the title are utterly dead-pan when performing and a gibbering mess off-stage. More could be made of the contrast between the two personas, but they manage to get across a fair amount without an awful lot of dialogue to develop their characters. As the put-upon stage manager, Rochi Rampal provides an emotional arc throughout the show; her quiet breakdown in the final moments is touchingly underplayed. The most impressive thing about these performers is the fact they remember exactly when and where to pick up the very many props scattered about the stage and never once miss a cue.
Aside from this technical success, however, Yarker’s production fails to pull us in. Even if we didn’t know the story as well as we do it would be difficult to find it interesting due to the lack of any sort of drama. If more were made of the offstage relationships, The Cardinals would be a far more engaging piece, but with the focus on the sub-par show-within-a-show we cannot invest. Kudos to Stan’s Cafe for attempting to make some points about religion in the modern world, but it can’t be helped thinking just as much could be said in a far, far shorter space of time.