Punch and Judy is a traditional puppet show: once common, but now relegated to seaside resorts and the occasional village fair and arts festival.
It is a one-man travelling show performed using hand puppets, in a tent-style puppet theatre. The puppeteer stands behind a gauze backdrop so that although he cannot be seen, his voice is easily projected to the audience. He holds the puppets at face level in front of the gauze. A playboard in front of the tent serves both to add depth to the performance area, and to hold props such as the hangmans gallows. The puppets hang upside down in the tent so that he can quickly and easily change characters. Of course, no more than two characters can appear at any one time.
The traditional cast of characters is as follows:
- Punch, the hunchback
- Judy (originally Joan), his wife
- Darkie, usually a servant
- Toby, a dog; sometimes a live animal
- Jack Ketch, the hangman
There are frequently other non-traditional characters.
Punch is a hunchback with an enormous, hooked nose. He always appears in a gaudy striped costume with a pointed jester's hat. He carries a club or a stick, with which he bludgeons Judy, his wife. He has a squeaky voice, which is achieved by speaking through an instrument, similar to a kazoo, held in the mouth.
Judy is usually dressed in blue and white with a mob cap, and has exaggerated features similar to Punch.
The story, which has altered only in minor details over hundreds of years, is extremely violent. Where the performance has not been outlawed, it is now considered the domain of children.
The plot is always a variant of: Punch kills the Baby; Punch kills Judy; Punch kills the Policeman, the Hangman, and basically everyone else. Punch is always harried into situations from which he is able to escape by violence and murder and murderous puns.
Like Pantomime, the show relies heavily on audience participation. This usually means plenty of opportunity to shout a lot. After seeing a couple of performances, as the story is always essentially the same, the audience knows what to expect. This seems to increase their enjoyment, and feeling of participation.
The origins of Punch and Judy are obscure, but can probably be traced to ancient India and/or ancient Greece. It has certainly been performed in England in more or less its present form since the seventeenth century.
Its lasting appeal seems to lie partly in the suggestion that complex problems can be solved by simple means (ie Punch's club). Of course, some of the fun lies in the fact that being part of a crowd all laughing and shouting at the same thing can be jolly good fun.