Theatre review: The Paper Escaper, Theatre Royal Studio, Hobart

The Paper Escaper follows the adventures of a character who wants to leave a pop-up book and write their own story.
A paper cut out of a boy in yellow top and blue pants running away from a green paper cut monster.

On the back of a successful Tasmanian schools’ tour in 2022, The Paper Escaper is taking its turn on stages around lutrawita/Tasmania. This delightful show was commissioned by Terrapin from writer Gita Bezard in 2021, following her participation in the company’s Writing for Puppetry program in 2019. 

Designed as a means of commissioning new Australian works written specifically for the art form, Writing for Puppetry focused on allegorical narratives, the techniques of visual storytelling and how text can feature so as to be delivered in languages other than English.

The program has resulted in a previous Terrapin work – 2022’s Scaredy Cat – as well as Feathers, which is currently in development for a school premiere in 2024. Terrapin’s artistic director Sam Routledge and The Paper Escaper team (performers, designers, composer) worked with Bezard, both in person in Hobart and over Zoom, to develop the story in a process of continual feedback between the performance elements.

Bezard says: ‘When writing for puppets in a visual world, it’s all action. There are no lengthy monologues to explain how the characters feel. We have to see it. They always have to be doing something and pushing the story ahead. Writing for puppetry means there is a greater collaboration between the writer, the design team and the director. There is so much room for all the elements within the story and everyone gets to put their own beautiful creative flavour into the story.’

For the opening at the Theatre Royal in a “relaxed” 2pm performance (house lights on half, audio levels reduced and auditorium doors left open), a full audience of mostly under 10-year-olds arrived with parents, carers and in large holiday program groups. The excitement was palpable as they saw the intriguingly grey set already occupied by an equally pale, grey, bent-over human-sized figure with a larger than life wrinkled face, glasses and wiry hair. 

The Paper Escaper is all about possibilities. Each audience member has already passed through the foyer where a large and very colourful paper sculpture occupies increasingly substantial amounts of real estate. Several children are also wearing paper constructions made at previous workshops run by Terrapin creatives at a local bookshop and the Museum and Art Gallery. They stop in the foyer, perhaps looking forward to seeing their plant-like creations added to the large paper garden.

The large centre stage workbench and map drawers speak of potential, a shelf of instruction books contains ideas and solutions, and the pots of glue and tools on the shadow board hold the means of execution. A large book titled Family Tree sits in readiness on the bench, the grey “furnace” to one side is quiet. 

Scissors and mechanical sound effects introduce the human-like maker’s next act of construction. Scraps of paper fly about. The pages of the book are turned to reveal a pop-up world of family relationships. The grey human manipulates card tabs to make arms wave and the paper scenes mature. A new pop-up figure is glued onto a page, but all is not going smoothly for their maker. The bright-coloured two-dimensional figure tears itself free looking for more than the story that has been written for them, while their maker’s frustration leads him to a series of strategies to entice them back into the book. 

The adventure travels around the beautifully made set, which becomes the place of exploration, developing confidence, overcoming fears and finding friendship. In the unfolding paper world, there is danger, sacrifice and compassion. 

Delightfully playful, the delicate paper-based puppetry of Noah Casey and Genevieve Butler is supported by vocal responses from equally articulate fellow performer Bella Young, whose paralinguistic sounds communicate the cut-out figure’s emotional journey. An easily identifiable soundscape shifts between found sounds and appropriately cheesy disco music – so much clearer than words! 

Read: Performance reviews: The Hotline, Poet No.7 and Zaffé, Melbourne Fringe Festival

With a bold, solid colour palette, the yellow, orange and red fire puppets who escape from their furnace are obviously the enemy of the green tree-like tentacles of a much larger creature that emerges from the workbench surface. All of the puppets are constructed to ensure intriguingly unique ways of moving. A confrontation is inevitable, and the eventual combination of colours creates a new magical paper world of luxurious growth. 

The Paper Escaper is a beautifully crafted work written for the young and to be enjoyed by all ages. 

The Paper Escaper
Terrapin Puppet Theatre 
Theatre Royal Studio, Hobart

Writer: Gita Bezard
Director: Sam Routledge
Remount and Assistant Director: Davina Wright
Assistant Director: Emma Skalicky
Set and Costume Design: Charlotte Lane
Puppet Design and Construction: Bryony Anderson

Lighting Designer: Nick Higgins
Sound Design: Jacky Collyer
Additional Puppet Construction: Greta Jean
Scenic Painting: Edith Perrenot, Freya Piscioneri-Young, Mads Hillam
Set Construction: Andrew Macdonald, Karl Sanger, Phil Wren
Costume Making: Roz Wren
Performers: Noah Casey, Genevieve Butler, Bella Young
Stage Manager: Ellen Roe
Assistant Stage Manager: Milla Chaffer

The Paper Escaper was performed at Theatre Royal Studio in Hobart on 5-8 October 2023. It is touring to Burnie Arts and Function Centre on 11 October and Earl Arts Centre Launceston on 13-14 October.  

Lesley Graham has been active in dance and dance education for over 30 years. She is a regular reviewer for ArtsHub and Dance Australia, a curriculum consultant, and represents Ausdance National on the National Advocates for Arts Education (NAAE).