Dotted Line Theatre’s The Engineer’s Thumb appears as part of the Firsts Festival, a season of puppetry premiers by emerging companies. It is produced by, and takes place at, Little Angel Theatre, and follows on from the company’s INCUBATE and HATCH programmes. As the moniker suggests, this is very much a season of new work. The five companies selected perform their pieces only twice for the festival, and the work has a raw, new, developing feel. It is certainly more than a scratch night, but without the benefit of a full length run, also not quite a complete performance. It is therefore in this spirit that it shall be reviewed.
The story follows the tragic (and at times horrible) journey of young engineer Victor Hatherly (Michael Imerson), through his apprenticeship, unemployment and first commission. Imerson shares the role of Hatherly with a twelve inch puppet, and handles the part with a wide eyed innocence that is subtle, warm and truthful. The piece is based on a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally a Sherlock Holmes tale, though he is skilfully edited from Dotted Lines’s production, and in the original effectively provides a frame for the chilling tale of the Engineer.
The Engineer’s Thumb exploits its homemade and patched aesthetic to create moments that are brilliantly inventive. Designer Alison Alexander has created a sharp and delicious world. This was this element of the show that most stayed with me. On the last day of his apprenticeship, Victor is treated to a farewell speech by his employers. Realised beautifully by a pair of wooden pliers sporting a wire wool moustache, and what appeared to be a customised wrench, this is a witty and occasionally hilarious scene. The three puppeteers skilfully transform a machine invented by the life-size Victor into his sometime employers.
Dotted Line Theatre also bill themselves as a company using “light manipulation”, and not for nothing. One of the most difficult elements of gothic horror onstage (a part of many Victorian stories and certainly a penchant of Conan Doyle’s) is how to genuinely frighten the audience. More than once, The Engineer’s Thumb is genuinely scary, and this is largely down to the company’s simple yet masterful use of light. The second part of the show sees Victor exploring a terrifying house, and a room-sized hydraulic machine. Almost all of this is lit by a rickety hand-held lantern, apparently made from a tin can. It allows the mysterious Colonel Lysander Stark (played beautifully by the towering Matt Hutchinson) to loom terrifyingly out of the dark, and the delicate, exotic Elise Stark (Clare Rebekah Pointing) to appear alarmingly suddenly.
However, this is far from a perfect show (and certainly not expected to be). The light does not always work, and sadly some gorgeous Victorian profile shadow puppetry does not quite read. The show also felt a little neither here nor there on sound: a permanent soundscape is provided by Jo Walker, which occasionally works, but is also repetitive and irritating. The company make some beautiful, if small, live sound and are all fine actors. When recorded sounds and voice overs take over, it left me feeling a little short changed. The script also felt, at times, at a distance from the period and the introduction, in which Victor is looking for work, felt laboured and over long. However, there were some rueful smiles of recognition in the audience when Victor loses a commission from a faceless local council because “the funding simply dried up”.
Overall, this is a lovely piece of work, a little, glittering, intimate, Victorian curio. Puppetry and object transformation are both excellent: satisfying and well judged by director Rachel Warr. The play with scale between them is also well used, as Victor literally diminishes in size following his terrifying employer Stark up the stairs.
I would like to see it with a full run – Dotted Line has enjoyed success in Edinburgh before, and I think this would do well there, not only because of the homemade and fashionably stitched together aesthetic, but because what this show really needs is an audience. The Firsts Festival does a great job of creating Edinburgh in miniature, of and for puppetry companies and enthusiasts, but The Engineer’s Thumb would really benefit from a good, solid month’s run, and a rich and varied audience to talk about it, develop it and unpack it as only Edinburgh can. I certainly hope to see more from this company – one to watch.
The Engineer’s Thumb ran from 20 – 21 March at Little Angel Theatre