Sean Burnett Dugdale-Martin
The characters in the piece are our three current members of the Secret Society: Badger (Maea Shepherd), Cat (Kit Marsh), and Rabbit (Devon Johnston). Later we are joined by the only human character, Dot, played by Annie Ruth. I don’t know who to afford the success of the puppet and costume design but congratulations are in order! The puppets were ADORABLE and each puppeteer is dressed like a human version of their character. It is all very wholesome and cohesive! Shepherd, Marsh, and Johnston bounce off each other with eclectic, contagious energy. Marsh’s Cat is serving Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall vibes, and Shepherd plays a loveable, bumbling Dumb to Johnston's high-energy hilarious Dumber. They all feel at home in the burrow and the cohesion between the trio and their beautiful home is the backbone of the piece, never failing to be entertaining. Props to Crossley-Pritchard for a directing style that has resulted in such a comfortable synergy in his cast.
The premise of the show is that Dot’s son, who as a young boy founded the Secret Society of Notable Nuisances and banded together this merry group of imaginary animals, has left home as a seventeen-year-old and now, fifteen years later, Dot has come to clean out his stuff from the burrow. This is sweet but does raise some questions. Before I begin I want to warn that SPOILERS ARE AHEAD.
SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH! If you don’t really care about how cohesive the logic of a fictional world is then probably skip this part because I am about to be a real stick in the mud about it. The imaginary animals can’t be seen by Dot as she moves around the space because they are her son’s imaginary animals. The animals can, however, move stuff so they take up physical space in the world and can interact with things, but are not seen by Dot. There is a scene where Dot tries to clean up the burrow and the Secret Society do their best to mess the place up because they don’t like someone coming in and organising their things, which is a funny scene! But from Dot’s perspective she’s gone into a hole her son left fifteen years ago, tried to clean it up and now shit’s being thrown everywhere by some invisible force. It’s done with great energy by the cast but you’d think in reality that Dot would be a little freaked out? Also, from Dot’s perspective, she’s by herself in a hole under a tree for forty minutes, talking to herself. The reality is that there are two different groups of characters on stage living two different performances. An alluring concept I encourage the team to think about would be having the animals as real animals that had been secretly taken care of by Dot’s son and use the logic that animals can understand each other but humans can’t understand animals. That way Ruth would have someone animate to bounce energies off of and a great excuse for more physical comedy. Currently, the comedy feels quite separate, being mostly between the animals while Ruth is left with monologues- and don’t get me wrong! Ruth delivers them powerfully, they are moving pieces, it’s just I was left wanting more of a dynamic between the animals and Dot.
SPOILERS AGAIN! Dot’s son left home when he was seventeen and fifteen years later Dot has decided to clean out the burrow as part of a spring clean. During the performance, I’m wondering why this is happening now. We’ve seen the Andy goes to college Toy Story movie, so that’s not exactly a rare perspective and the choice to have Dot be critical to the story instead of her son was an alluring choice. However, I left the theatre wanting Dot’s experiences explored more. It seemed like the puppets were put in the story’s spotlight when it should have been Dot. What is the experience of a mother, now an empty-nester, who changed their life to raise someone who has since left them behind to live a more independent lifestyle far away from them? Is there a parallel between his imaginary friends he left in a burrow and his actual mother who seems to be treated like an imaginary friend now he’s gone? Also, why is this happening fifteen years on? Wouldn’t her son have done a clean of things when he left? Wouldn’t Dot have had this experience years earlier?
SPOILERS OVER! I can’t help but think back on Knot Theatre’s 2022 Fringe offering Glass Town and how the company was praised again for it’s stunning design but critiqued for it’s story and narrative decision making. Knot Theatre has a tendency to value style over substance (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I still had fun and laughed heaps!) but I would suggest a possible company objective for their next body of work would be a focus on their writing and their narrative decision making since they’ve unlocked a winning formula for direction and design.
All in all, Burrowers or the Secret Society of Notable Nuisances is a beautiful, nostalgic show which should be experienced for it’s heart-warming, bubbly characters and a set that will take your breath away. It is on at BATS until the 23rd July and you can find more info here.