As an outsider in London, I get quite excited about finding those quirky, ‘only-in-London’ types of activities. This weekend I took my husband’s entire family including our daughter, niece and nephew to the Puppet Theatre Barge on the River Thames in Richmond and it has undoubtedly made my list of favorite things to do here. The quality of the show, the history of the company, and the unique and bizarre location – a converted barge moored on the River Thames – for a marionette theatre makes for an absolutely brilliant afternoon in London.
A little history of the barge – it’s an 80-foot Thames lighter built in the 1930s which has been converted into a 50-seat double-bridge string marionette theatre by Gren Middleton and Juliet Rogers. After touring together for a couple years as the Movingstage Marionette Company, they bought the barge, converted it, and opened it to the public in 1982 with a performance of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Complete with low ‘mind-your-head’ entryways, a vintage-musty smell in the air and awkward narrow walk-ways, you’re forced from the get-go to leave your London seriousness behind and I found myself instantly anticipating something a little bit wonderful to fill the next hour of my life.
Passionate about live animation and the importance of imagination, Movingstage are meticulous about the quality of every element in their shows. It pays off, too. The show we saw – Brer Rabbit Visits Africa – was completely captivating for everyone from my 14-month old daughter to my husband and his grown-up brothers. As a marionette novice, I spent a good chunk of the show trying to work out how they created such depth on the stage, which you forget is small enough to fit in the end of a narrow river barge. The lighting was beautiful, the story absolutely perfect and of course, most importantly, the puppets were lively, funny, and delicately realistic. The crowd, including myself, couldn’t help but gasp, or cheer, or giggle at the entry of every new character onto the stage.
“You have to be very aware of what you’re presenting, and very careful that you don’t present something that can damage unformed souls (i.e. small children) that are still getting their personalities together. If you present something really scary to a 4-year-old you can make an impression on a child that lasts forever and that’s a very great responsibility, but it’s also a very rewarding one because you can also leave a very good impression on a child for the rest of its life,” explains Gren Middleton who, along with co-founder Juliet Rogers, is still very active on the barge. In fact it’s very much a family affair for them. On one of the current productions, “Bottom’s Dream,” Juliet, her daughter Kate, and her grandchildren Joshua, 19, and Stanley, 21, are all puppeteering. Natasha and Louise, their other daughters have also worked for the company.
More than putting on brilliant shows, encouraging young kids and boring-old adults alike to use their imaginations, and working in schools, it seems as though they all just have a good ol’ time! The ages of the current puppeteers range from 19 to 70 and based on the amount of fun my 14-month-old daughter had during the show we saw, I think that proves you’re never too old or too young to fall in love with puppets.
By Erin Spens
All photos courtesy Puppet Theatre Barge