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Bill’s 44th Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button) Edinburgh

It’s not so much the storyline but the way in which it is told. Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck play Bill, who has set up his apartment with balloons, party hats, drinks and light bites. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a puppet mix drinks with such dexterity before. James and Manjuck work very much in tandem, so much so that it’s easy to forget that the large puppet is being operated by two people, with perfectly synchronised movements.

Bill's 44th, credit to Ben Wright Smith.
Bill’s 44th, credit to Ben Wright Smith.

Bill manages to elicit a big ‘aah’ from the audience at least twice: will his guests arrive? Jon Riddleberger first appears as a pizza delivery driver who has gone to the wrong flat. Later in the evening, he plays all the characters that do turn up to Bill’s party – their behaviour ranges from bland to bizarre. Perhaps the penny dropped for almost everyone else in the audience earlier than it did for me, but essentially Bill resorts to entertaining himself.

Quite why this happens, the production suggests, is because of natural attrition of friends over the years. A video (and by video, I mean video, and Bill still has a working VCR) Bill is sent by a relative gives him, and therefore the audience, a rundown of some of his birthdays over the years. As a child, he was doted over, and when he began full-time employment as an adult his colleagues fussed over him, presenting him with a card and gifts. But with each passing year, there’s increasingly less interest, until Bill finds himself where is ‘now’, on his forty-fourth birthday.

While the show makes it easy to empathise with him, the (non-verbal) narrative still leaves some questions unanswered. What, for instance, does Bill do to mark other people’s birthdays? How many invites did he send out? Will he get to the point where, decades later, he has so many balloons he could recreate the animated movie Up? There’s some backstory, but not quite enough to fully understand why everyone has eventually deserted him. And isn’t it ultimately his responsibility to get out there and make new friends?

The show holds the audience’s attention throughout. One minor point: some of the props are a tad too small to be seen by everyone, which left some unable to see what was written on them. Apart from that, it is a highly entertaining and cleverly performed show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The streamers are hung, the punch has been spiked and the cake is just begging to be eaten.
The anxious host, Bill, has planned his party to the last detail and now, all that remains is for his guests to arrive. Desperate to fill his apartment with camaraderie and celebration, his imagination runs wild. Bill’s 44th explores loneliness and self-acceptance through different styles of puppetry, raucous balloons and a cheeky piece of crudité.

Creators / Puppeteers Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James
Creative Collaborator / Puppeteer Jon Riddleberger
Production Coordinator Taryn Uhe
Lighting Design Jordan Wiggins
Composer Eamon Fogarty

Bill’s 44th
Underbelly Cowgate (Belly Button), 66 Cowgate, Edinburgh, EH1 1JX
Thursday 3rd – Sunday 27th August 2023

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