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Arson attack forces Welsh puppet theatre to cancel season

Fire damage (left) at the Harlequin Puppet Theatre, which was founded in 1958 (right)
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Britain’s first permanent puppet theatre has been forced to cancel its summer season following an arson attack.

North Wales Police has confirmed it is investigating the blaze at the Harlequin Puppet Theatre in Rhos-on-Sea.

The 118-seat, purpose-built puppet theatre was set alight late at night on August 1, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Owner and puppeteer Chris Somerville has been forced to cancel the theatre’s summer season of Hansel and Gretel, which was due to run until August 30.

Somerville, who has worked at the theatre since it was built 60 years ago, said: “Apart from making me very frightened, it’s the audiences that have been affected – those little kids who are the people that are really hurt. I’ll just keep struggling on.”

He added: “I’ve had lots of sympathy from people. My audience tends to be grandmas and grandads who have retired here and their grandchildren who have come to stay with them; these people come regularly.”

The Harlequin Puppet Theatre is Britain’s first permanent puppet theatre. It was constructed in 1958, by Eric Bramall, who Somerville worked under. Now Somerville owns the theatre and operates everything himself, including the puppet shows.

The puppeteer said that somebody had set fire to the fire doors of the theatre, which had spread, damaging the doors and the electrics. The rest of the building was damaged by the smoke, with the seats and curtains needing to be cleaned.

Bags full of puppets have been damaged and the entire theatre will need to be cleared of soot.

Somerville confirmed that his insurance should cover most of the damage, but he was not covered for loss of earnings.

He said: “I was woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from the police. I was two days into my summer season and then I had to close.

“It was deliberate: somebody set fire to the theatre. It was from the outside and a glass window was also smashed.”

Somerville posted a statement on his website saying he was “very sorry to disappoint” his audiences, but there would be no more shows for the immediate future. He hopes to reopen the theatre for October half-term.

A spokesman for North Wales Police said: “We are investigating an arson. The fire door of the building was badly damaged, and the rest of the building suffered smoke damage.

“No one has been arrested in connection with the incident. We understand that it probably occurred some time in the late evening.”

He added: “If anyone has information in relation to this, please call the police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously.”

The North Wales Fire and Rescue Service confirmed that two fire engines attended the blaze at around midnight and took an hour to put it out.

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