Tucked away down a most charming passage behind St. Mary’s Church off Upper Street in Angel, you will find “The Little Angel Theatre”. It is, surprisingly, the only puppet theatre in London. Both passionate and inspiring in astronomic proportions, it is the place that unleashed my imagination as a young child.
With stunning stage sets, beautifully crafted marionettes and meticulous choreography between the actors, puppeteers and sound and lighting engineers, each performance requires a huge amount of fanaticism and precision. This may seem an unfathomable task for such a pint-sized venue. With its seats and stage both accordingly shrunk for its intended audience, and black walls that make you feel like you’ve entered the deepest depths of a forest, your mindset is already programmed for an introvert and thought-provoking wonder. Even now as an observant adult can I see grownups perching on the low seats, thankful they don’t need to give a reason as to why they are sitting on the edge of their seats.
Puppetry is fairly common on television, but as a staged performance it has always struggled with the ebb and flow of popularity. Evident since Roman times, puppetry was used by travelling minstrels through the medieval times as a vehicle for the church and then later on as a way to satirize modern events. The Dubliner, Martin Powell, opened up the first puppet theatre in St. Martin’s Lane in 1710. More followed but all found that the costs were too high. By the end of the 18th century even marionette shows had disappeared from fairs and instead had been replaced by the more cost-effective “gloved puppet” one-man booth show. The art nearly died out completely at the end of the 19th century, had it not been for the Punch and Judy shows put on for the newly established bank holidays.
Founded in 1961 by John and Lyndie Wright, the company has staged countless successful shows over the years with subsequent tours around the UK. The success in the theatre’s design lies in the circular bridge that runs directly above the stage. It allows the puppeteers total independence to run around the whole stretch of platform without getting in each other’s way, and for scenery to literally fly in and out. In other words, there is total freedom in expression. My favourite show from when I was young was “The Little Mermaid”. I still remember everything from the haunting music to the ingenuitive set design. Written by Hans Christian Andersen it is meant to be a sad story and The Little Angel Theatre kept true to the original by not sugar-coating it into a happy “Disney” ending.
Thankfully, The Little Angel Theatre also does happy stories and covers all formats of puppetry,- hand/glove, marionette/string, rod and shadow. They are progressive in the fact that they run puppet-making workshops for young children, teenagers and adults respectively.
Their programme “Incubate” sees them working with the Central School of Speech and Drama to provide a space to support and develop experienced professionals. They also host a mini festival called “Hatch” where they show new work in progress. Other projects include “Suspension” aimed at puppet performance and story-making for secondary school pupils, and “Connexions” brings young mothers together with the desired result of producing shows for their own children.
This magical theatre continues to grow and inspire each new generation. Original founders John and Lyndie Wright’s son Joe went on to direct the films “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”. The richness of texture and the well-crafted storytelling could only have been born from a child with an overactive imagination. John Wright sadly passed away in 1991 and Lyndie now takes a back-seat interest in the company. Observing her working on a new puppet in her chaotic yet organised workspace, I ask her if she ever gets concerned with her theatre in someone else’s hands or worried that standards may slip. She refrains from answering, but like a wise sage, she gives me a knowing look that says “I have total and unwavering faith”.