fri 22/09/2017

theartsdesk in Liverpool: The Sea Odyssey | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Liverpool: The Sea Odyssey

theartsdesk in Liverpool: The Sea Odyssey

Titanic-themed street puppeteering on an epic scale takes over Liverpool for the weekend

'The whole operation keeps on the move courtesy of an army of "Lilliputians"'Mark McNulty / Liverpool City Council

There is something surreal about emerging from an underground station in Liverpool and being confronted by an enormous giant lumbering its way up the street. Even coming up the escalator it is possible to hear the band accompanying this gigantic being merging with the roar of delight from the crowd. And crowds there have been. Over the three days of the Sea Odyssey it is estimated that 600,000 people have seen the latest street theatre creation from Nantes-based Royal De Luxe.

The cost of the epic - £1.5m of legacy funding from Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008 – is probably dwarfed by the amount of money which has flooded into the coffers of local businesses. Hotel occupancy is up around 25 per cent compared with the same period last year and it was difficult to find a table at any city centre restaurant.

Ostensibly, this was Liverpool’s contribution to the commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic a century ago. In many ways, Liverpool has been rather shut out from the whole Titanic centenary, yet the ship is part of the history of the city. White Star, the company which owned Titanic, had its world headquarters in Liverpool. Its port of registry was Liverpool and a substantial proportion of the crew were from the city. Directors of White Star Line lived locally and, when news of the disaster reached home, crowds gathered outside the company’s offices – which are still there, now known as Albion House – as much as they did in Southampton, London and New York.

The Sea Odyssey did tell some of this story. A little girl looking for her uncle who had news about the fate of her father was based on a true tale. William McMurray, from Liverpool, was a steward on Titanic and his 10-year-old daughter May wrote him a letter which he never received as the ship sailed before it could be delivered. He lost his life.

So began the epic three day trip around the city for the little girl, her pet dog Xolo and her uncle, the diver. The show began with a few warm-up stunts: a geyser which erupted out of the pavement just behind the Cunard Building, one of the so-called Three Graces on the waterfront and former HQ to another major Liverpool shipping legend. People, stunned and thrilled by the goings-on before any of the giants has emerged from where they were hiding - a warehouse in the north of the city, apparently – knew something was afoot.

The diver came up from the murky waters of Salthouse Dock to begin his walk in search of his niece. (He, supposedly, had retrieved the note from the wreck and tries to tell his niece about what has happened). At this point the sheer enormity of the project begins to dawn on the assembled crowds. The puppet can look in to the bedroom windows of a five-storey hotel near the waterfront. They said he was half the height of the Royal Liver Building, though that could be an exaggeration.

But he moves, stares rather discomfortingly at the crowds and it feels like he’s looking right at one particular person. Maybe that’s why there is a look of bemused wonder verging on terror in some quarters. Even more wonder was when he vaulted – with the help of a massive crane – across the Ceremonial Arch in the city’s Chinatown. The biggest arch outside China, its scale puts the whole show into proportion.

The whole operation is kept moving courtesy of an army of "Lilliputians", who operate a complex series of pulleys which keep the puppets mobile in a realistic way. A team of 50 or more pull ropes, drive the crane, move eyes, make the head nod – everything to bring this leviathan to life.

The little girl is smaller but equally alive, and there are audible gasps as she pads her way past. The star of the show, however, is Xolo the dog. He gets washed, fed, watered, petted and fussed as he goes amongst the crowd, licking people, chewing at one lady’s umbrella, even cocking his leg in front of onlookers.

It’s impressive, although it’s not clear the connection between this show and Titanic was really understood by all of the crowds. Some may also have wondered whether a puppet show was the right way to commemorate a disaster which claimed 1,500 lives, particularly in a city so closely connected with the ship.

That may be so. But there was more relevance to this than there was to the show in 2008 – put on by a rival company - which saw a giant spider creeping around city streets. Around 200,000 turned up for that event, but the Sea Odyssey easily dwarfed those numbers. It is already being touted as the UK’s biggest street theatre event of the year, but size isn't everything. There was emotional resonance here, too. No doubt a few tears were shed as the stars departed the city on a boat, sailing up the River Mersey and onward, out to sea.

The sheer enormity of the project begins to dawn as the puppet looks in to the bedroom windows of a five-storey hotel near the waterfront

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Nice of you to totally leave out anywhere in Ireland.

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