There is a sense of real creative freedom in working with a piece of new writing – this atmosphere filled the air when I entered the rehearsal room for the upcoming Edinburgh show Canon Warriors. Fresh from its critically acclaimed run at the Oxford New Writing Festival, Canon Warriors is an odd, sincere, and heart-warming examination of queer identities pushed onto the fringes of society.
The story centres around Fleur (Imogen Allen) and Punch (Livi Dunlop), who are illegally living in a council owned beach house on the Kentish coast, whilst eking out a living as “the premier feminist puppeteers in Thanet – the only feminist puppeteers in Thanet”. The puppets, Sid and Dog, are used by Fleur and Punch to perform patriarchy smashing plays – tearing apart a literary canon (hence the name) which underrepresents women’s voices, queer voices, trans voices, to name a few.
The drama of the play occurs over the course of 4 days running up to the airing of one of these productions in a village hall, whilst Fleur and Punch’s relationship suffers through the strains of an impinging council worker (Matthew Shore), an impending winter, and the inevitable struggles of living in a beach hut.
This may well sound rather bizarre, but do not fear – an ostensibly surreal premise is backed in spades by the writing and the performances.
The relationship between Fleur and Punch stands at the centre of this production. Allen brings a curious blend of gritted-teeth surety, and childlike vulnerability to Fleur – a queer woman unable to express her identity at home or at university, but who seems on edge in the only place that allows her to be herself. Dunlop’s Punch seems comparatively detached from reality, prone to breaking into outbursts of puppetry during ordinary conversation. At one point, the puppet Dog was supposedly responsible for an incident with some M&S ham, getting both the puppeteers banned from the shop – as Fleur insists, exasperatedly – “it was you, you control Dog… My hand puppet made me do it will not get you off for shoplifting.”
To pull back to our expectations of how a piece of new writing might handle these sorts of characters, the first word that might come into your mind might be ‘zany’ – in that horrible, infantilising, packaged, ‘kooky’, ‘quirky’, Zooey Deschanel vein which was so culturally omnipresent about six years ago.
I am happy to report that these ludicrous puppet wielding characters feel anything but zany – they feel vulnerable, and palpable, they feel like their more extreme idiosyncrasies are less about getting a laugh out of the audience, and more about desperately for searching tools to communicate just how hard it can be to exist and flourish on the fringes of a society where the odds seem so stacked against you.
Speaking to director Ell Potter and writer Hannah Greenstreet, I got some taste of this drive to create a theatrical space where oft maligned or tokenistic voices could express themselves in and on their own terms. This isn’t an ideal relationship, it isn’t a relationship primarily defined by its queerness – it is a flawed and painful relationship expressed with stunning realism, despite the bizarre medium of its self expression.
The characters themselves are pointedly certain in the uphill nature of their struggle – as Punch reflects, she is “a travelling show-woman, the first in a long line of show men”. And the final great act of this piece is that there are no guarantees that it will all end well – the strains of reality on the space within the beach house will not necessarily be overcome – but I suppose you’ll have to go and see it at the Fringe to find out.