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Little Angel Theatre: the merry marionettes

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Little Angel Theatre went dark nearly ten years ago, but Lynette Shanbury and Peter Glanville have since brought it back to life. Lisa Martland finds out who’s pulling the strings at the north London home of puppetry and why The Tempest is the perfect play for the company

It’s easy to walk by and miss the Little Angel Theatre, tucked away behind Islington’s busy Upper Street, and yet its influence as the ‘home of British puppetry’ spreads far beyond its north London location. In fact, as 50th anniversary celebrations get into gear and a new collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company opens, the venue is flourishing.

In 1961, when a group of puppeteers – led by Lyndie Wright and her late husband John – transformed a rundown temperance hall into a puppet theatre, the unconventional space was specially designed for the presentation of marionette shows. Five decades later, the now rare art of marionetting remains a traditional part of the theatre’s work, but the venue – one of only three building-based puppet theatres in England – has also become a highly respected and innovative trailblazer for puppetry nationally and internationally.

While the theatre has occasionally struggled funding-wise, a stream of full-scale productions, incorporating a vast range of puppetry styles that attract audiences of all ages, has been developed by those who have trained and worked there.

“It feels like we are in the best position now that we’ve been in in the last ten years,” says general manager Lynette Shanbury. “The theatre went dark in 2002, but it’s just been growing since then and strengthening, we have fantastic partnerships going on.”

One such relationship involves the RSC which previously collaborated with the Little Angel in 2004 for a production of Venus and Adonis, inspired by the Bunraku puppet theatre of Japan. This year’s project is The Tempest, staged by the venue’s artistic director Peter Glanville, and specially edited (by Glanville and Phil Porter) for a young audience of seven-year-olds and up. Having opened in March at the newly refurbished Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Tempest begins a five-week run in north London this week.

Glanville adds: “Of all the Shakespeare canon, Tempest is the one that sprang to mind for its fantastical nature as well as the many possibilities for puppetry. I liked the sense of things being manipulated by an ensemble of spirits. Puppetry can do so much to help the sense of atmosphere, in this case emphasising the feeling that external forces are guiding the action.”

But Glanville did not simply want “lots of puppets moving around the stage” reciting Shakespeare, his concept involved having a cast of actors who were able to portray a mixture of puppet and human characters and sometimes play an instrument as well.

“We needed strong actors who could do all these things and retain the beauty of the language and story, that’s so important when introducing a young audience to Shakespeare. It’s all about how everything feeds into the telling of the story, the balance of different elements is essential.”

Glanville has also been eager to develop work for an adult audience, culminating in the Suspense Festival two years ago which ran over ten days and involved eight different venues. “We felt it was time to create a festival exploding the myth that puppetry is just for kids. It felt like a vindication of where the art form is, there were so many enquiries and many of the shows were sold out. For this year’s event we are talking to lots of international companies and four new venues have come on board – Camden Roundhouse, the V&A, the New Diorama and Wilton’s Music Hall.”

In addition to events such as the Suspense Festival, the sheer range of touring, training and community work the Little Angel does is impressive. Up and coming puppeteers are encouraged to develop new projects, while courses for beginners and professionals cover everything from the making of puppets to different styles of the art form. A great deal of time is also spent working with both young children and teenagers.

This and more has been achieved without core funding from Arts Council England or the local authority. In 2002 the theatre briefly closed when Islington council cut its grant. While it has benefited from ACE project support, its bid to be accepted as a National Portfolio Organisation was rejected by the arts council only last week, leaving the Little Angel as dependent as ever upon its own resourcefulness.

The latter is well documented – in the financial year to March 2010, its income stood at £531,000, of which nearly £395,000 was raised through the box office, school shows, touring and education work. Total income from donations and merchandise almost equalled the Angel’s entire grant for the 12 month period – which stood at just £42,000.

Both Glanville and Shanbury are realistic about the theatre’s funding status, but remain positive about pursuing ambitious plans for the future.

“It would be amazing to be able to expand areas like the national and international touring because the demand is there,” explains Shanbury. “So many people want to work with us or tap into our expertise in puppet making. It’s also about putting British puppetry out there and saying we do this really well and you should be coming to Britain for this.”

The standing of the theatre is also evident in the calibre of people who work there, ranging from the skilled puppet-makers who burrow away in the building’s workshop (a stone’s throw from the 100-seater auditorium) to the creative practitioners who visit. For example, former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen has written The Magician’s Daughter, a companion piece for The Tempest aimed at three to six-year-olds. The theatre’s Christmas production -inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story – has a creative team which not only includes Mike Shepherd of Kneehigh Theatre, but the talents of Little Angel’s founding family Lyndie Wright and her children Sarah and Joe (the latter best known for directing movies Pride and Prejudice and Atonement).

Glanville acknowledges this is an exciting period for puppetry. Recent productions like Avenue Q and War Horse have helped to raise its profile. Glanville’s hope is that puppetry gradually gets the recognition it deserves and receives the same respect as it does in other countries, particularly in the Czech Republic and Hungary: “There hasn’t been a national strategy for puppetry so it remains something of a refugee art form. But now there is an incredible renaissance with people looking outside tradition in terms of theatre-making. I hope it won’t be long before our work is acknowledged as something to be proud of, we really are cultural ambassadors for the UK when it comes to puppetry.”

* The Tempest runs at the Little Angel Theatre, London, from April 9 to May 15

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