Tucked away in between two of Islington’s busiest thoroughfares, Little Angel Theatre was established by John Wright in 1961 from the wreckage of an old temperance hall. It first came to my attention at the end of last year when I heard of a show Kneehigh were putting on there in conjunction with the theatre (A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings) and I headed up to see it. Thanks to this booking I was added to their mailing list, and subsequently heard of an event they occasionally run called ‘London’s Hidden Gem’ – an evening where the theatre is opened up to paying visitors to explore backstage and the workshop, to see where all the magic happens!
To begin the evening the group of us assembled were ushered into the auditorium, where we were treated to an introductory talk from legendary puppeteer Ronnie Le Drew. He has been associated with Little Angel Theatre for most of his life, as well as branching out his career by puppeteering for screen projects such as Labyrinth (starring David Bowie), The Muppet Christmas Carol, this year’s live-action remake of Beauty & the Beast, and (most famously) children’s TV show Rainbow. He’s still a part of the puppeteering team at Little Angel Theatre, and will be working on the forthcoming Dogs Don’t Do Ballet. To top all this off he is due to release a book just in time for Christmas this year, entitled Zippy and Me.
The place really does have a remarkable story. I won’t ruin their whole concept of the talk by recounting it to you here, but the fact that it went from bomb-hit hall to functioning theatre so quickly (and has remained for over 50 years) speaks for itself.
As part of the talk, Le Drew gave us all a quick demonstration of several different types of puppets that are created and used at Little Angel Theatre: marionettes, rod puppets, shadow puppets and glove puppets (including a Sooty given to him by Harry Corbett himself). Lime wood is one of the favoured materials to be carved into marionettes; the whole process of creating the figures generally takes three weeks for each one.
After this we headed backstage to see the bridge and all the other technical aspects that go into putting on a puppet show. It’s surprisingly spacious, although they are quite pushed for space at the moment so every spare patch is used for storage! As a result there were a lot of previously used puppets on show both here and in the workshop just off to the side of the building.
Lyndie Wright’s corner of the workshop is packed full of ideas, and one of the most exciting areas to explore on the tour. Lyndie was married to John, and they founded the theatre together – she’s still designing puppets today, and they even passed the puppet bug on to their daughter Sarah (her most recent work includes 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips and Nice Fish). It’s rather inspiring to think that many of the wonderful puppets that come to life on the Little Angel stage begin their life in that little corner, and that they’re part of a long line that stretches back to the theatre’s beginnings.
It really is a fascinating couple of hours – and if you have even the slightest bit of interest in puppets it’s well worth the trip out. Not only is there ample opportunity to hear from some very knowledgeable people who can tell you all the ins and outs of puppetry, but it’s a wonderful way of seeing how a theatre operates behind the scenes. And with it being a dedicated puppet theatre there are lots of extra little bits to discover as you go along.
I fully intend on going back regularly to check out their programme of shows, and hopefully even take part in one of their courses to really make the most of #Puppets2017!
The Little Angel Theatre can be found on Dagmar Passage in Islington. As well as their calendar of shows (resident & touring companies) they also run a range of courses for children, adults & families.