In praise of puppets: 50 years of the Little Angel Theatre

The public's thirst for puppetry is growing - due, in no small part, to London's Little Angel Theatre. Found down a tiny passageway in Islington, the company has been doing pioneering things with puppets for 50 years.

When founders John and Lyndie Wright first discovered the old temperance hall that was to become the Little Angel, it was a wreck.

The roof had caved in and there were trees growing in the auditorium.

With care and attention they transformed it into a marionette theatre with a workshop attached.

If you walk along Dagmar Passage today, you can get a glimpse inside.

Hung about with puppet parts, with a rich smell of freshly-carved wood, the workshop is a childhood dream of a place.

The company makes all its own puppets on site, and takes commissions too. It also runs a range of courses and classes, determined to keep the art of puppet-making alive.

Beyond, the stage area is small but deep, and there are two marionette bridges from where hidden puppeteers can manipulate long strings.

The theatre recently got new lights, which have transformed what the backstage team can do. Up a ladder, in a tree house-like box, the technical manager can now perform all kinds of wizardry.

Sculptural waves

Five decades since it was founded, the theatre has changed but the familial atmosphere remains.

Lyndie and her daughter Sarah are both puppet-makers and have created characters for the company's latest show, The Tempest, which has just transferred from the RSC's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Artistic Director Peter Glanville has been given the task of re-blocking the production for their snug space - the Little Angel is about a fifth of the size of the Swan.

In a rehearsal room, surrounded by sculptural waves that look like the carcass of a boat, he has been working out a plan.

"We're bringing Shakespeare to a younger audience," he said.

"The story was ideally suited to puppetry.

Image caption The theatre's workshop is hung about with puppet parts

"There's a lot happening visually that will seduce a younger crowd and mean they're not frightened by the Shakespearean language."

But Mr Glanville is also keen to dispel the myth that puppet shows are only for kids.

"Part of the reason we set up our own festival in 2009 [the Suspense Puppetry Festival] was a resurgence in work being created for adults," he says.

"Everywhere I look there seems to be puppetry integrated into work - Avenue Q, Warhorse, Madame Butterfly.

"The public's interest and thirst for it is growing, and the festival will return this autumn."

Pushing the boundaries

Defined as bringing an inanimate object to life for performance, puppetry is a fluid thing.

There are puppeteers pushing the boundaries all the time, telling stories with found objects and working with sand, clay, newspaper, even eggs.

"There are purists who think that if it's not a clear character, with a recognisable form, then it's not puppetry," says Mr Glanville.

"But people within the puppetry sector have a very wide view.

"We're continually questioning what the form is and how traditions can be maintained but also made contemporary," he continues.

Image caption Current show The Tempest is a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company

Mention the Little Angel's funding situation, however, and the artistic director's tone changes.

"The two main building-based puppet organisations in the UK - Little Angel and Norwich Puppet Theatre - have just been told we don't have a penny between us," he said.

"It's very saddening. The public and the theatre world get it, but why don't the Arts Council? Why is there resistance?"

At a time of sweeping cuts across the board, it is perhaps no surprise that the company is suffering along with many other arts organisations.

But it is not enough to remove the gloss on a half century of achievement.

"The days when people thought puppetry was just some kind of Punch and Judy booth show are long gone," said Mr Glanville.

"I'm excited about how we can continue to grow."

The Tempest runs at the Little Angel Theatre until 15 May 2011.

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