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This review’s a tough one.  The Marked tackles an important topic – the life of rough sleepers on the streets of London – and its central device, drawing a parallel between modern-day vice and fairytale evil, is well-conceived.  What’s more, Theatre Témoin have an excellent pedigree, and the quality of their acting and puppetry is clear for all to see.  Unfortunately however, none of these positives can overcome a fundamental problem… I simply couldn’t follow what was going on.

The production opens in a fantasy world – with the dark tale of a once-benevolent queen, who’s been cursed by a poison and developed a taste for murder.  Her son, a child prince with a toy sword and shield, vows to kill the witch his mother has become and release the beautiful spirit that’s now imprisoned within.  As the action shifts to the real world and the present day, we learn that this is the childhood nightmare of our down-and-out protagonist, Jack; the queen represents his mother, her curse is (I assume) alcoholism, and he’s drifting through his life in the constant hope he can somehow set her free.

So far, so good, and there’s plenty to praise in this core concept.  The device of having human characters work fantasy puppets is an effective one, establishing compelling parallels between the fairytale and the real world.  The puppet witch is scary in all the right ways, while the modern-day set is the epitome of creative grunge, with props emerging from wheelie bins and costumes stitched from refuse sacks.  There are a few neat surprises to look forward to as well, including one memorable scene where Jack is literally enveloped by an embodiment of evil.

The trouble is, though, that there’s a whole load of other imagery which made no sense to me at all.  There’s a very strange comedy routine from some feral pigeons, a dramatic fight where I wasn’t sure whether or not a character had been killed, and a scene involving two elderly characters which was clearly very important – but lacked any obvious context about who they were or exactly what they were doing there.  Jack also repeatedly seems to extract something from his neck, but I never grasped quite what that was, whether it was real, or what it represented.

The show is billed as a work in development, so a certain lack of fluidity is fully to be expected.  But I found myself frustrated by the lengthy sequences of very short tableaux, each of which ended just as I was mentally settling in to connect with a new scene.  Again, if I’d understood the significance of the images, I might well have appreciated this stylistic choice; but as it was, it left me disorientated and, if I’m honest, really rather bored.

I suspect that a handful of fairly simple tweaks would transform my experience of this play.  All that’s lacking is clarity – some more obvious points of reference within Jack’s story, so that the stylised and fantastical components can deliver the allegorical punch they’re surely intended to.  It would be a travesty also if I failed to acknowledge the calibre of the acting, particularly in portraying the streetwise but vulnerable Jack.  At the end of the day though, I can’t endorse a work containing so much I didn’t understand.  For me then, The Marked fell wide of the mark.  What a shame.