Flickering black-and-white images on a small TV screen go back to the dawn of Angel time. The days of schoolboys in caps filing into the converted Islington Temperance Hall building, in early 1961 – before the decade truly became ‘the Sixties’. In they troop politely to watch through a postbox-like slit a bright stage where puppets play-out stories, with a skill and depth that became trademarks of Little Angel Puppet Theatre. (Coyly, the theatre downgrades the word ‘puppet’ in their publicity – the web address is www.littleangeltheatre.com – presumably it’s thought offputting for anyone who hasn’t seen the work itself.)
The painting and preparation also glimpsed in the film indicate the practical graft that went into the Wright family’s theatrical project. Founder John Wright died after 30 years of Little Angel output, but his widow Lyndie is still a presence, and will join with other family members in the forthcoming anniversary season.
One star of the early years remains present. Looking as glamorous as ever, one of the marionettes from an early show sits beside the TV, in full-colour splendour, a Mistress Minx in her expression, needing only the briefest expert manipulation to bring her character to flaunting life.
The development in puppetry world-wide, as well as a respect for its traditions, is apparent in the little Angel. Peter Glanville, Artistic Director for the last five years, would never claim it’s the only UK place where puppetry is taken seriously. But the Little Angel’s technical skill,combined with its understanding of how puppets and theatricality can stimulate remarkable responses in young and older audiences, is seen in the mix of tradition and innovation in the forthcoming half-century anniversary season.
The postbox has long been opened-up to full stage height, width and depth. While some shows for the very young seat performers and audience members together on stage, most place spectators in the auditorium pews – and often have puppets processing down the aisle.
Opening the 2011 season announcement was Royal Shakespeare Company Chief Associate Director Gregory Doran, talking about the Little Angel/RSC co-production, a 75-minute version of The Tempest. It’s their second collaboration, following 2007’s performance of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. Directed by Glanville, The Tempest will open in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan Theatre 11-26 March 2011 (TICKETS: 0844 800 1110; www.rsc.org.uk) before moving to the somewhat more compact environment of the Little Angel 9 April-15 May.
It’s meant for 7+, while younger (3-6) audiences get a look-in with a Tempest-derived piece The Magician’s Daughter, set to tour in autumn.
Meanwhile, in Islington August brings a revival for four evenings of the first-ever Little Angel show The Wild Night of the Witches, described as a 35-minute Edwardian marionette farce. Looking forward as well as back, the revival will be in the hands of 7 or 8 emerging puppeteers.
Gregory Doran made clear how puppet work has infiltrated the language of modern theatre presentation, citing War Horse plus several RSC productions among others. And nowadays the Little Angel’s well aware of the art-form as an adult experience. So 28 October-6 November brings the second Suspense Festival. Reaching across London, this will include performances at Chalk Farm’s Roundhouse, South Kensington’s Victoria & Albert Museum and the New Diorama, amid the forest of glass buildings north of Warren Street station.
It’s accompanied by Suspension, an education project geared at local secondary schools, while the Angel’s Youth Theatre bring a puppet element to the NT Connections programme with Carl Grose’s Gargantua in March at the Little Angel (6 March 5.30pm, 7 at 7pm) and Soho Theatre (19 March). Before which, there’s to be a symposium on puppetry in education and therapeutic settings, on 28 January.
Together with community events in July – a party 2-5pm on 9 July and community play with over a hundred participants on 15-17 July (subject to funding) – this is evidence of Glanville’s belief that puppetry can add value to people’s lives, discovering some to be new potential puppeteers and letting far more young people gain confidence and learn about themselves through involvement in sessions and projects.
There’ll be more visiting companies in the autumn while 2011 will round-off with a co-production involving Kneehigh Theatre’s Mike Shepherd, and based on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Playing from 19 November, it’s a step into a future unimaginable in the days of that early post-box stage.
Bookings and information: Little Angel Theatre: 020 7226 1787.