Bill’s got everything he needs to host an amazing birthday party – obviously, as it’s his 44th, it’s more along the lines of crudités and hummus than bouncy castles. But amidst the punch bowl and the fancy crisps, there’s an elephant in the room: no one else seems to be turning up. Left to his own devices, Bill tries to make his own fun, which leads to a delightfully surreal – and occasionally sinister – hour of drunken shenanigans.
Puppeteered skillfully by Dorothy James and Andy Manjuck, we’re treated to solo dance parties and increasingly anxious glances at the clock (Bill doesn’t have eyes, per se, but his eyebrows manage to convey the inner turmoil he’s feeling). All the while, he anthropomorphizes various party props, including balloons and a carrot stick he names Cary, to keep him company.
Fortunately, just when we think the pathos alone is too much to bear, a lifesize Cary manoeuvres their way through the door and across the stage in a distinctly oblong manner. This kicks the party up a notch, but the existential dread only grows, too; for every gag, there’s a moment of ennui as Bill is forced to reckon with the realities of his solitary life.
The success of Bill’s 44th is, of course, primarily down to the talent of James and Manjuck. Needless to say, their puppeteering is incredible, bringing a fully-formed character to life – mannerisms, idiosyncrasies and all – without ever uttering a word. Despite only operating one arm each, Bill’s coordination is better than most humans, as he wrestles with an uncooperative DVD player and tries to pry off the lid of a liquor bottle. Even if the pair is just doing this to show off, you can hardly blame them.
As funny as it is heartbreaking, Bill’s 44th will prompt you to reflect on mortality, loneliness and ageing – with a side of birthday cake, of course.