Judy stands up to Punch as classic puppet show gets modern makeover

After 362 years of frankly horrendous treatment at the hands of her husband, Mr Punch, Judy has had enough.

For the first time, the female half of the most famous puppet double act in history will take centre stage at a brand-new contemporary version of the seaside favourite, Punch and Judy, at London’s Covent Garden tomorrow.

The show has been developed by a team at the University of Exeter as part of the Judy Project, a three-year investigation into the roles women have played in the puppetry tradition and how gender is portrayed.

The man in the booth – or “professor”, as Punch and Judy puppeteers are known – is Spike Lidington. Aged 20, he is part of an emerging scene of younger people who are getting interested in the art of puppetry in general, and Punch and Judy in particular.

“Our challenge was how to work with, and update, a traditional form of entertainment that comes with a lot of audience expectation,” Lidington said. “Whether you view it as misogynistic and making light of domestic violence, or as romping family entertainment and a keystone of English seaside culture, it tends to provoke a deep-seated response.”

The first documented performance of the Punch character was recorded by Samuel Pepys in his diary on 9 May 1662, when a marionette puppet called Pulcinella, rooted in the commedia dell’arte tradition of Italy, played at Covent Garden and soon after at the court of King Charles II.

The story since then generally focused on the pathological violence meted out by Punch to pretty much all the rest of the cast, usually with the aid of a big stick, with his victims including his baby, his wife, a policeman who comes to investigate, a crocodile, a clown, and often a hangman and the devil, all of whom Punch traditionally outwits and usually kills or maims.

Not any more. For the first time, Judy will actually question her role. This version of the show also draws on historical figures and movements such as the suffragettes and Pride in its costumes and set colours.

The Judy Project’s lead, Dr Alissa Mello, said: “At its core, this is a Punch and Judy show with familiar characters – Ms Judy, Mr Punch, Joey the clown, the policeman, the crocodile and the devil – but not all fulfil their most familiar roles.

“There are subtle practical, narrative and design changes and updates that may or may not have meaning for everyone but that are there if one is looking. Each adds a new and modern layer, expanding who the show is for and the meaning it conveys.”

The Punch and Judy show run by Mark Poulton, who made the puppets and handpainted the booth, on Weymouth beach in 2016. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

When the new version was ann­ounced in January, the Sun dismissed it as a “woke makeover”. Dr Tony Lidington, lecturer in drama at Exeter and a 40-year veteran of the seaside entertainment business (and Spike’s father), shrugged off the attack. “For a start,” he says, “woke simply means being aware of the society you live in and the people around you, so I’m more than happy to be called woke.

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“But people think of Punch and Judy as this very traditional form of entertainment that’s never really changed, which isn’t really true. It has always been a very nimble show throughout its history, and it has always changed to reflect its audience and the time it is in.”

For example, says Dr Lidington, the cast of characters has changed over the decades and centuries, with Adolf Hitler replacing the devil during the second world war and characters such as Punch’s mistress Pretty Polly and a troupe of Chinese jugglers being phased out over time.

“A show like Punch and Judy should evolve just as society evolves, which isn’t to say it has to lose what makes it fundamentally funny and entertaining, and with such a British identity,” says Dr Lidington. There are still lashings of violence, he adds, but “it’s more about attacking the pillars of authority than individuals”.

The Guardian

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