There’s a tiny gravedigger performing a cheeky tango with a rotten corpse. In a couple of minutes he’ll take a hot iron to the dumb stiffs jutting legs to try and flatten them out. Then he’ll go full psych and have a crack at sawing those legs off so he can stuff the body into a too small coffin. Disconcertingly, my kid is loving every minute of this.
We’re sitting in a slightly chilly Routemaster, red velvet curtains stretched across the windows, a miniature proscenium arch stage lit placed where the driver would have once sat. Tiny spotlights fill the bus with long shadows. This is the home of the Bus King Theatre, a puppet theatre that – on the afternoon we go anyway- is staying true to the spirit of classic British puppet shows by filling it’s performances with slapstick violence, Satanic characters, and a singular lack of moral fibre. Unsurprisingly, it’s great.
We’ve bought the wee man along to watch the Bus King Halloween special, and honestly, I was worried about how this was going to pan out. The last puppet show we saw was a performance of Punch and Judy in London Fields that left Junior near traumatised (to be fair it was a pretty intense rendition of Punch; at one point the devil appeared to be bumming a vicar while Punch screamed in the background. It was no Wallace and Gromit), so there was every possibility that a Halloween puppet show was gonna result in all sorts of disaster. As it was, we all ended up having an amazing time. Despite Bus King delivering a show that featured scary devices including – in rough order – a spider, a ghost, a battered corpse, a snake, a cemetery wraith and a raging dinosaur, the boy howled in joy throughout. This was because (unlike the aforementioned Punch & Judy show that I can never un-see) Bus King are genuinely funny. In half an hour of show they pull together the kind of freewheeling, anarchic humour that kids crave, something like a Victorian puppet theatre performing a Tom & Jerry re-enactment.
The story (as it was) of their Halloween show ran something like this; a hapless, if likeable, French tramp is looking for a job, and a mean spirited French cemetery owner is looking for an employee. They meet, the bum gets the job, and then spends his first day trying to bury a corpse. All sorts of things go wrong. The End. There’s no attempt to explain why most of the stuff happens. A random ghost comes to tuck the tramp into bed on the night before his first day at work, but from what I can tell, no kid’s in the audience are wondering why and how the ghost is there; they’re too busy shrieking at it.
The puppets are beautifully made traditional looking things, although the company isn’t too pedantic about keeping everything in style – the dinosaur that appears at the end looks like a plastic toy they copped from Pound Stretcher. The bus itself is superbly atmospheric, an old skool Routemaster, it’s uneven walls papered willy-nilly with play bills from puppet shows of yesteryear. Charmingly, everyone involved in the production seems just a little bit wonky as well. After the show we pay for a puppet making workshop that takes place on the top deck, and while we’re wrapping bits of pipecleaner around wooden spoons, the theatre usher/ workshop leader regales us with absent minded tales of the lives of her 8 cats.
In short, Bus King Theatre are a treasure. Their website is strange and unwieldy, they only do one show a day at 2pmn sharp (ish), and you definitely have to phone to book tickets because online booking is entirely hit and miss. All of this is testimony to their entirely eccentric nature, a nature that manages to contain elements of seaside pier, travelling carnival, and dark evenings drawing in. what more could you want? They perform half hour plays that are raucous, weird and slightly spooky, and in an increasingly brand-message obsessed city, do so with a bimbling, relaxed charm that speaks of another life lived at a different pace. Well worth going.
Bus King are currently based in Spitalfields, performing a show a day at 2pm – find out more over here