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The Dong with a Luminous Nose at Little Angel Theatre

The Dong with a Luminous Nose
The Dong with a Luminous Nose

Peter O’Rourke has taken Edward Lear’s 704-word 19th century nonsense poem about finding and losing love and – after five years of development – turned it into a 70-minute-long puppet play. Technically brilliant, painstakingly crafted and heart-breakingly beautiful in parts, this production of The Dong with a Luminous Nose is simply not as mesmerising nor as entertaining as anything that requires you to sit in the dark and watch for over an hour needs to be.

The promotional material is at pains to point out that this production is most certainly NOT for children under the age of seven: but who is it for? Unlike recent adaptations of nonsense poems such as Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of The Snark, there are no jazzy show-stopping numbers nor budget-driven reductions of characters. Dong is decidedly non-commercial and smacks of Arts Council subsidy: it is experimental and eccentric (in a good way) but sadly it also comes across as self-indulgent. Instead of simplifying and conveying Lear’s poem, this production, co-created with Sarah Wright (who is from the Wright family puppeteering dynasty of Little Angel Theatre where the show runs until mid-November), has added layers and layers of symbolism, references and even a few character names but sadly not much in the way of dramatic structure. The net effect is what my late Professor of Directing called ‘artsy-craftsy’. Or as my seven-year-old co-critic said, ‘I liked the puppets but it was too long’.

For anyone who is a purist of puppet-craft, this production will be a delight. For those curious about the art, The Little Angel Theatre is a treasure and worth a visit to see its workshop and behold the artistry of carving and building world-class puppets (look out for open days and workshops as well as their education programme). But for families not steeped in theatre or intrigued by puppetry traditions, the show may be a little too esoteric.

Ben Glasstone’s sound design is powerful, especially the most affecting storm and sailing scene. However, as the ‘story’ moves dreamily, it also moves in a decidedly adagio fashion and Glasstone’s score, of course, is central to the pacing which is just too slow and lacks sufficient variation of musical energy: it was excellently constructed but too dirge-like and lacked joy or whimsy. The lighting, by David Duffy, is also crucial and was, in parts, used to brilliant and hypnotic effect. Without question, the puppets are magnificent to behold and the scenic design aids their centrality.

Whereas other absurdist family productions such as The Play in Which Hopefully Nothing Happens relish the fun offered by absurdity and thus delight young (and adult) audiences in an original way, The Dong with a Luminous Nose feels heavy-handed in throwing so much aesthetically fascinating imagery into the mix (Joan Miro? Easter Island?) just because it can – rather than distilling the source material to the purest and most powerful essence found in its ‘nonsense’. If this production were divided up into installations in a gallery, around which the audience could stroll and pause for 15 minutes per display, I would be rapt and thrilled. But for over an hour this series of absurd and beautiful images – and in parts great pathos – layered on top of Lear’s nonsense poem starts to feel like clotted cream atop béarnaise sauce poured on macaroni and cheese: all delicious in their own right but actually diminishing the creation when heaped on top of each other.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

And those who watch at that midnight hour
From Hall or Terrace, or lofty Tower,
Cry, as the wild light passes along, –
“The Dong! The Dong!
The wandering Dong through the forest goes!
The Dong! The Dong!
The Dong with a luminous nose!

Edward is a bit of an oddball. A shy and troubled boy, he makes no effort to get on with other people. Instead he is always watching the horizon, waiting for something to happen. Then one day “the Jumblies” arrive, and his life is turned upside down… then shaken about a bit… and then a bit more!

With a huge and colourful cast of abstract and figurative puppets, this absurd take on Lear’s nonsense classic explores that difficult age between being a child and becoming an adult.

Brought to you by the designer/director and composer partnership behind Little Angel Theatre’s Alice in Wonderland and The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

Based on the poem by Edward Lear.
A Little Angel Theatre and Cubic Feet co-production in association with Monstro Theatre
Sat 14 September – Sun 10 November 2019


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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