After choosing in 2016 to focus on Shakespeare (in the 400th anniversary of his death), I went completely different this year and made it my mission to learn more about, and see more shows featuring, puppets. I have a longstanding love of puppets, grown mainly from Edd the Duck and the Muppets – and there has definitely been something of a resurgence, particularly (as it happens) this year. I had a bit of a slow start, but in the end I pretty much managed to see at least one puppet-based show a month. My grand total (excluding repeat visits) actually comes to 23!
Over the course of the year, not only have I seen that many shows with puppets in them, but I’ve also managed to write a few features and learn some more about the art – thanks to talks, tours and a pretty handy book (Penny Francis’ Puppetry: A Reader in Theatre Practice).
At the end of last year I discovered the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, which can definitely be considered one of the homes of puppetry in the UK. It is the base of the Wrights, beginning with South African John Wright in 1961 and continuing now with Lyndie (his wife) and Sarah (his daughter). A workshop is attached to the theatre, allowing them to make a lot for in-house productions; they also design and make puppets there to be used in outside productions (for example, Life of Galileo at the Young Vic – directed by Sarah’s brother, Joe Wright). They occasionally open up the theatre of an evening to give a talk about the venue’s history and run a tour backstage, so I took advantage of this in March. If you have even the slightest interest in puppets then I’d definitely recommend you head along on a future date – not only do you get a free glass of wine, but it’s a really insightful evening.
In terms of shows themselves, one highlight has to be Avenue Q in New York; basically a rude version of The Muppets – could it be more ideal for me? It was also really nice to make my first visit to the Puppet Theatre Barge in Little Venice, especially as it was to see a lovely marionette version of the French film The Red Balloon, and also to see a new Kneehigh puppet in The Tin Drum’s Oskar. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show (a late addition) probably takes the record for the most puppets in one show – it comes to around 75 in total!
One show that I’ve got a lot out of in a short space of time is the National’s new production of Pinocchio. This version features songs from the Disney classic, but also takes extra inspiration from the original Carlo Collodi 1881 & 1882 serials – and has several giant puppets, as well as a toddler-sized Jiminy Cricket rod puppet. I was lucky enough to be invited on its official opening night, also getting the chance to go to an NT Platform with Toby Olié & Bob Crowley (also featuring director John Tiffany, unexpectedly) beforehand. I had also booked several months before for The Craft of Puppets, a talk in the Clore Learning Centre led by Toby Olié – and all about the development of Jiminy herself.
It was absolutely brilliant to have The Lorax back for a few weeks before he took on a North American tour, along with all of his related puppet friends (the fish are still my favourites), and I delighted in this year’s production of Emma Rice’s The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales. Venus and Adonis at the RSC is also up there with my favourites, as was Blackeyed Theatre’s Frankenstein. And coming in very late on is a revolutionary piece of theatre in The Grinning Man; the performances and puppetry are second-to-none.
I’ve really enjoyed having the excuse to go and seek out more puppets – and learning more along the way was an added bonus. Obviously I won’t suddenly stop going to puppet shows, but I’m not going to update the page every time I see one outside of 2017; the occasional addition should pop up on there from time to time, so keep an eye out…