Santa and His Puppets at The Hub

‘Mummy! Look Mummy – that’s the real Santa! The little girl was pointing to the white-bearded and red-robed figure sitting on a stone plinth and greeting children in the piazza of The Hub.

But it wasn’t the real Santa; it was the young American, Darren Collins. Mind, you could well understand the little girl’s confidence that Darren was the real deal. He takes great care to look and act the part. Earlier, I had watched his make-up going on at MAC Cosmetics. And there was nothing slap-dash about his beard or his robes.

He’s got talents, Darren: stand-up comedian, magician, juggler – and puppeteer. He is now the dynamo within the Kenya Institute of Puppet Theatre, which since its founding in 2007 has trained hundreds of young Kenyan puppeteers and taken health and social awareness puppet shows around the country.

Now, the Institute has created Puppets 254 as its ‘commercial wing’, which uses its profits to support the community education programmes and make them less dependent on donor funding. And this group is putting on a Christmas puppet show at The Hub every weekend, and on a number of other days, until 2nd January.

Yes, there is the kind of slapstick I remember from the Punch and Judy puppet shows I used to enjoy as a kid when on a seaside holiday with the family. But there is also the humour of the way a few carols have been Kenyanised, when belted out by the Bethlehem Boys barbershop quartet.

For their ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, instead of:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge in a pear tree

We get:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A big plate of hot ugali!

And the days go on with two nyama chomasthree chicken tikkas…. four tilapias…. five chapatis…. Until Vern, the singer, gets grabbed by a hook and pulled offstage

There is also one number by the Bethlehem Boys that will be enjoyed by the older adults in the audience – particularly those who, like me, suffered Latin lessons at school. It’s an ingenious translation of ‘Adeste Fidelis’, the early Latin version of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. The translator renders ‘Adeste Fidelis’ as ‘a girl’s name’. ‘Laeti triumphante’ becomes ‘Lady elephant’. So the carol is ‘about a lady elephant called Adeste Fidelis’!

Apart from the Santa on his plinth and asking little boys and girls if they have been good, and the puppeteers doing their thing in the booth, there are a number of Puppet 254 characters busking around the people on the very busy piazza. The Snowman was giving children a warm cuddle; Wonky, the elf with a long nose, was attending to Santa; Widget, the chirpy elf, was guiding people to him – and I mustn’t forget Dasher, the reindeer, and Benji, The Hub’s bongo mascot. It’s a fine team, Puppets 254 – full of warmth, wit and energy.

They have found a good venue at The Hub. When I was having my lunch at the al fresco La Cascina Italian restaurant, the piazza was alive, with children driving toy cars, toy scooters, toy horses – or trying to stay on a life-size bucking bull in a rodeo ring. And then there was a lift when the puppet booth opened and Santa strolled to his plinth.

Darren likes The Hub because it is so international. I watched parents encouraging their children to sit by his Santa for a little chat and a photo – a good mix of African, Indian and European parents. I guess most of them were remembering their own days of innocence when they, too, believed in Santa Claus.

I could see that Darren was enjoying it all – even though his clothes and his beard and his make-up were making him hot and itchy.

‘But if you are going to do this job,’ he said, ‘you should do it right.’