‘Okay, so I can’t stop crying.’ The woman behind me says as she begins to search in her handbag for a tissue. I grab my coat and walk briskly out of the theatre, my face wet from tears. Cell is the play at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival about the illness motor neurone disease. It focuses around Ted; a four-foot tall puppet that finds out he has the life altering illness.
We open with Ted sitting at his desk collecting stamps. He is a white, cloth puppet with thick glasses purchased in front of his black button eyes. In the background, white screens surround him. Light is projected from behind allowing stencils to move across and reveal different shadows – so skilfully manoeuvred by the puppeteers, the audiences forgets their existence.
Ted is seen as a real person moving through his house, standing on the train and falling in love. He finds out her has motor neurone disease when he is at an auction and his joints begin to seize up. Through numerous doctor consultations, he is able to receive a diagnosis. This is where the piece could have turned into something mawkish, ramming their message into you, ‘life is so short, we should just live it for today y’know!’ But Cell is better than this.
With Ted’s condition slowly deteriorating, he recognises that his time is limited and decides to travel. He then falls in love. And yes this is a rather simplistic view, and yes, it is awfully convenient that he could afford to travel and share it with someone. But in the face of a horrible illness, none of that matters and you really do want to make his story a happy one. You are cheering for him, he stopped being a puppet a long time ago.
The whole piece included only three puppeteers and a barrage of props, which they used to create a soundscape for each different location Ted found himself in. On a busy train, one of the cast eats a bag of crisps loudly causing Ted to put down his book and show his frustration to the audience, which they respond with charmed titters of laughter. There are many incidents like this throughout, tiny details of life that when presented to us on stage with a puppet they are fantastically captivating.
The goldfish that bubbles across the room by an actor with a glass of water and a drinking straw, the shadow of the letter that flies across the backdrop with ‘NHS’ marked across it or the stamps he cuts out of magazines to glue into his book. These every day activities create a beautiful soundscape. No words are spoken within the hour so your appreciation for these tiny constructed noises is heightened.
The play is a collaboration between theatre companies Dogfish Theatre and Smoking Apples. Combined, they create an incredibly moving and subtle interpretation of what it means to live with an aggressive illness. It is so charming; a real feat to not wholly depress its viewer with this subject matter, Cell uses the art of physical theatre and well-crafted puppetry to leave an impression of hope.
At the end Ted is put back onto his specially adapted chair, now that his motor skills have worsened. He stares up at the audience for help, then for the first time in the production, he looks at the three puppeteers moving him and they let go. And it is this poignantly simple metaphor is one that stays with you, weeks later after the festival is over.