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Review: New Owner at The Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

By Lisa Lanzi

From the team who created the award-winning, still touring The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer comes the South Australian premiere of New Owner at this year’s DreamBIG Festival.  This work was created in 2016 by THE LAST GREAT HUNT, a collective of six Perth-based theatre makers: Adriane DaffArielle GrayChris IsaacsGita BezardJeffrey Jay Fowler, and Tim Watts

New Owner is recommended for ages nine to fourteen as it does include themes of sadness and loss that may be upsetting for very small children.  However on a perfect Autumn day, in Adelaide’s Space Theatre, filled to the brim with students, teachers and this reviewer, the spell was cast brilliantly and the audience focus was held for the entire hour.  I did ponder during the performance that a few children might have reacted to certain triggers, perhaps the death or illness of a close relative or even the loss of a pet.  Not that I am suggesting this is a problem and Tim Watts addressed the audience prior to the start about some of these aspects.  As well as a few words on theatre etiquette so that everyone might enjoy the show, Watts did say that it was ok to laugh, cry or feel scared but to remember that it is simply a story.

With an unpretentious but seamless combination of live action (Tim Watts and Rachael Woodward), puppetry and original animation, New Owner is a ‘hero’s journey’ with a difference.  Our hero is a small, fluffy puppy called Bart who is rescued from the pound by Mabel after the passing of her former pet.  The two bond absolutely, but sadly, Mabel’s health is failing and after a time the two are accidentally separated.  Bart’s subsequent adventures lead him to fend for himself on the streets and even form a friendship and learn about loyalty.  

There is a fascinating and ingenious melding of live action with beautifully illustrated and charming animations for the puppets to interact with.  The puppets (designed and constructed by Chloe Flockart) are manipulated by black-clothed Watts and Woodward within a small and intimate set and an arrangement of screens/scrim which feels a little like we are peering into the world through a TV screen, or a 16mm projection.  There is a profound tenderness apparent as the humans manipulate the puppet characters with expert care and impart a remarkable ‘realness’ to their movement and interactions and yet the human presence ‘fades’ appropriately into the background as we are transported into the world according to Bart.

On another level, the animations (a perfect balance between semi-realistic and hand-drawn) are important as the setting for Bart’s adventurous journey.  At various times we see the puppy tumbling down a drain or leaping across city rooftops or jumping into a van - the animation provides the ‘forward’ momentum but the puppet and puppeteer are interacting flawlessly and believably with the motion.  It really is transporting to observe.  The journey and adventurous animated sections contrast well with the more domestic scenes between Mabel and Bart and then later with another human as we are led to a mostly happy-ending. 

New Owner is entirely without human dialogue but Watts and Woodward provide voices for Bart and his new canine friend with expressive barks, whimpers, sniffs and growls.  All of this live sound is layered with the addition of original music and soundscape by Rachael Dease.  The music is uncomplicated and sensitive and elevates the emotional impact of the work greatly.  The subtlety of the recorded sound perfectly complements the exquisite story and excellent artistic accomplishment brought by the performers.

Developed while they undertook a residency at the Kinosaki International Arts Centre in Japan, Arielle Gray and Tim Watts are the co-creators of New Owner and deserve all the accolades they have received for this work.  The atmosphere ranges from gently comic and tender to threatening and poignant and will provide great discussion points for classes and their teachers during this DreamBIG Festival.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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