Cardboard, paper, and a little imagination is all you need to let Spare Parts Puppet Theatre take you on a trip to Japan to meet an Akita dog named Hachiko. Based on the true life events in the relationship of a professor and his dog, Hachiko brings their story of friendship and loyalty to the stage with a one-of-a-kind puppet and paper props.
A lonely professor finds a new zest for life when his maid gives him a dog, who he names ‘Hachiko,’ which means ‘eighth prince’ in Japanese. Everyone around him notices the change in his demeanour that Hachiko has inspired, and those of us with companion animals can empathise.
The story unfolds gradually at an elongated pace, which may or may not suit some youngsters. When we arrive at the point of the story where the professor fails to return from his daily train journey home, the wiggling and wriggling in the seats has already begun, and there is still a fair bit of the story left to tell. However, the quiet, gentle nature of the show means the kids are quite respectful of the space and atmosphere, and there are still plenty of surprises and stage illusions up director Philip Mitchell‘s sleeve to keep them alert and attentive.
Performers Jessica Harlond-Kenney and Sean Guastavino work their character chops here, playing a handful of delightful eccentrics with various accents: a crowing nosy neighbour, a vaguely European housekeeper, an Irish stationmaster, a cheeky uni student, and of course the bright barker Hachiko himself. These different people are distinguished by a few brightly-coloured, quickly-applied cardboard costume props, which Guastavino happily demonstrates in the Q&A after the show.
As with many of Spare Parts’s productions, grown-up themes are addressed with a tender, light touch, and Hachiko does deal with some sad and nuanced issues. Hachiko working through his grief is something that perhaps even adults would find difficult to grasp; after all, many people would deny that animals feel and think in similar ways to humans.
But the central ideas that Hachiko raises will be relevant and tangible for most kids, and certainly their curiosity about the mechanics of the show itself – how the Hachiko puppet works, where the actors disappear to in the set (cleverly designed and economically executed by Matt McVeigh), what the movement of the big yellow disc across the backboard means – will be piqued.
The lovely thing about Hachiko and about so many of Spare Parts’ shows is that they’re free from a moralistic tone, allowing kids (and adults) to draw their own conclusions about how and why people – and animals – behave the way they do.
Reviewed by Cicely Binford, Perth Arts Live, 8 April 2017