Little Dickens, Big Laughs

It feels like a bit of a put-on when Ronnie Burkett misses a beat, glances left, right, left, and finally, with a thankful grin, remembers what scene he’s supposed to be doing next. Burkett warns us at the start of the show that he hasn’t done much prep, and that he’s got a cold to boot. And then he delivers just under two hours of fast-paced schtick, zippy one-liners, and imaginatively-designed musical numbers. It just makes you wonder how loose this all is, really.

For those not in the know—“Daisy virgins,” as more than one participating audience member was described—the Daisy Theatre hosts an all-marionette cast with frequently fabulous clothing and a penchant for groaners. Little Dickens loosely fits the cast into the framework of A Christmas Carol, which becomes a foundation for Christmas sing-alongs, naughty jokes, surprise guest appearances, and perhaps a touch more camp than Mr. Dickens’ original story. (You might read the title a few ways: the cast performing Dickens is indeed little, and the show, in the end, really has only a little bit of Dickens. Further interpretations are best left as an exercise for the reader.)

This is not, in other words, intended to break new ground in adapting Dickens. It is a puppet show, and a very funny one. Its songs are wonderfully presented by the puppets and enthusiastically sung by Burkett, and if you haven’t seen a marionette glance coyly at an audience before swivelling to furiously shake its booty, you’re missing a worthy experience that probably isn’t all that easy to come by in Vancouver.

Burkett does his work in all black, but not in the dark. His face hovers over his characters, occasionally pinched in concentration, more often as widely exaggerated as the characters he’s voicing. It feels natural, not distracting, to glance between puppet and puppeteer. There’s that looseness: the program guide informs me that Burkett became a puppet fan at age seven, and the slapdash enthusiasm of the performance gives the feeling of glancing in on someone lost in playtime. At one point, Burkett casually asks his stage manager what the next scene is; at another, he pauses with his back to the audience before loudly muttering, “I knew this was going to be a bad idea,” and instructs us to talk among ourselves while he sorts out whatever mess his bad idea has made backstage. It’s charming. In a way it’s at subtle odds with Burkett’s unmistakable experience as a performer; his firm control of the more improvisational and participatory sections is always there to remind you that you’re not just looking in on someone trying out funny voices in the mirror.

Jokes about East Van and rural Alberta can only wink and nudge us through so much of the story before the inconsequentiality of the whole thing starts to catch up, and Scrooge types may be less invigorated than others by the invitations to group carolling. But a night of comedy like this isn’t supposed to be perfect—it’s supposed to be funny, and Burkett’s show is.

Now somebody go see it twice, and tell me how much is improv, and how much is just a bit.