Looking for an escape from the daily humdrum? Annabel Walker has a suggestion that's out of this world ... but there are strings attached FOR MANY OF US, much of childhood - and adulthood, for that matter - is happily spent in fantasy worlds. Whether they are ones of our own creation or those offered in movies, television or computer games, they can be a necessary, harmless escape from the humdrum of daily life. Now, for those seeking refuge from an overload of Christmas imagery, an internationally acclaimed show promises to deliver just that type of escapism. Harking back to the age-old tradition of puppetry, the Canadian Theatre de l'Oeil show The Star Keeper may count children as its target audience, but the troupe is well drilled in enchanting adults across the globe. Marionettes, rod- and hand-puppets come to life to tell a story Theatre de l'Oeil describes as 'visual poetry' set to original music. So far the traditional approach seems to have worked, as The Star Keeper has won the company the 2001 Canadian Play Award for Theatre for Young Audiences and three awards from L'Academie Quebecoise du Theatre in 1999. Theatre de l'Oeil has taken the show all over the world, and the programme in Hong Kong at the end of this month will see The Star Keeper celebrate its 450th performance on Christmas Day. The company's manager, Georgine Valliant, says the troupe will be coming to Hong Kong direct from their home city of Montreal. 'This is our first time back in China since we performed in Beijing and Nanjing 20 years ago,' she says. 'And it's the first time we have performed in Hong Kong, so we are really excited.' Theatre de l'Oeil has more than 20 original productions under its belt and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Technically, the show proved challenging. Not only did it marry various puppeteering techniques, but it was the first time the company chose to omit dialogue. With the standards set so high, The Star Keeper took three years to develop. The show begins when Pierrot the clown tries to light up the evening sky but drops a star. Far below on the ground Pretzel, depicted as a 'friendly worm' with a human face, sees the star, picks it up and goes on a hazardous journey to return it to the sky. Even in the world of make-believe things do not go according to plan, and Pretzel must battle through worlds inhabited with the treacherous residents of the sky and sea, most notably the bewitching charms of the Bubble Tamer. In contrast to the abstract and absurd nature of Swiss troupe Mummenschanz, which staged a mime show styled on an optical illusion in Hong Kong last month, The Star Keeper offers a more classic form of puppetry and storytelling. Although apt for Christmas, it bears no similarity to bawdy pantomime, opting instead for a gently illuminating approach. Artistic director Andre Laliberte has described the show as a 'theatre of images', and Valliant says it took years to develop because the company decided it was visuals, not speech, that would tell the story. The company also prides itself on developing new puppet-making and operating techniques and uses each show as an opportunity to experiment. 'We began with the synopsis, but as The Star Keeper has no dialogue we found that it took some time to experiment with all the different ways we could use the puppets to make the story understandable,' Valliant says. 'Once we rehearsed with the puppets we brought in the composer to watch the show. When he'd composed the music we rehearsed again to make sure it all worked, so we passed through a lot of steps to make this show work.' The show has a simple set - in effect, a black box - so the screens, lighting and sound effects create the different worlds that Pretzel journeys through, while the puppets really take centre stage. The audience is hard put to guess that just four puppeteers move the more than 25 characters. 'It's not a small show,'' Valliant says. 'If the audience could only see there's a lot going on backstage, it's like another show in itself.' Although Hong Kong is Theatre de l'Oeil's only destination in Asia, Valliant says the company is hoping the show will so captivate people here it could open the region up to the company. 'The Star Keeper is easy to understand because it has no words and you don't have to worry about translation across cultures,' Valliant says. 'It's not really Quebecois culture; it doesn't really have a cultural trademark. It's really for everywhere and for everybody. It's a good show for export and a beautiful show to look at.' The Star Keeper, December 23-26, 8pm; December 25-26, 3pm, at Sai Wan Ho Civic Centre Theatre, 111 Shau Kei Wan Road, Sai Wan Ho. Tickets $100 and $150 from Urbtix. Inquiries: 2268 7323.