Sex and Puppets is reimagining the way we think and talk about sex and relationships. A production by the puppet company Wondering Hands uses a series of witty sketches, devised in collaboration with puppeteer Alicia Britt that are based on real life experiences as told by members of the public in online anonymous questionnaires to explore different aspects of sex.
It is directed by Edie Edmundson, who I interviewed last year for felix when she was the lead puppeteer in the Little Match Girl at The Globe. Edie and the company hope the show will help address the lack of proper sexual education given by the UK school system. Wondering Hands believes that puppets help to make a subject that is often obscured by analogy or misrepresented in pornography, to be honestly talked about in way that is accessible.
I have first hand experience with the lack of useful sex education in schools, having attended a faith school that believed repeating "don't have sex before marriage" would adequately cover all the nuances of sexual education. It was, therefore, with considerable anticipation that I sat crammed in People's Theatre in Camden last Sunday, where the show would be on for one night only as part of the hotbed festival of sex.
I am happy to report that it did not disappoint. The performance was confident, well-choreographed, and delicately handled a range of issues, from first kisses, to some rather unusual sexual kinks. Most importantly, it was also really funny.
The venue perfectly suited the tone of the show. It was intimate and relaxed. Those at the front were only a few metres away the puppets and the puppeteers, which allowed a good deal of audience interaction.
In the opening sketch, Fuzz, who looks a bit like a cross between a golden retriever and a pink Muppet, pesters the front row to allow him to access 18+ material on his tablet. When he is finally granted access, he grunts and reclines, proceeding to enjoy the material with help of an aubergine. Some of the most effective parts are when the puppets acknowledge their puppeteers; in one sketch, after declaring some bold sexual fantasy, they turn to question their operators, who become comically shy and awkward. Through methods like these the puppets are allowed to grow as characters away from their puppeteers, becoming detached from the humans on stage and taking on rich personas of their own.
The show was funny, informative, and, visually, a delight. My favourite sketches were given by the puppets acting as STIs, including chlamydia, crabs, and genital warts. Someone at Wondering Hands has serious creative talent – these puppets were very skilfully designed; I've never seen crabs look so cute or genital warts so grumpy! I was also surprised at how effective the puppets were at giving medical advice, as a microbiologist, it was heartening to see accurate information being disseminated in such a fun way.
Reflecting on the whole performance, it is clear that Wondering Hands are doing something highly commendable. Puppetry is an excellent medium to discuss sexual issues. The way we associate puppets with childhood means that it catches us unawares to hear puppets discussing topics on adult themes. We don't bring our guard up in the same way that we might be inclined to when a serious looking professional gives us information on the same topics. With the awkwardness out of the way, it's easier to engage with what is actually being said.
Wondering Hands aims in the near future to tailor a more child-friendly version of the show to be performed in schools. Edie tells me that they have lots of sketches stored up, so it's just a matter of choosing the best ones to perform.
The run may be over in Camden but there's another opportunity coming up soon; the next performance will be at Brainchild and Shambala Festival this summer, and there are plans to tour the UK later this year. I urge all of you to seek out this show. There's a lot to learn from Sex and Puppets.
If you'd like to be more, pun intended, intimately associated with the production, and you can anonymously donate your own stories to the company with the link below. Your story may well get turned into puppetry!