UPDATE FOR 2020: Paper Dolls is at the Little Angel Theatre until 18 April. It is suitable for children aged between 3 and 8; tickets cost £14 or £12.
‘Once you’ve loved something, you never really lose it’. Julia Donaldson’s Paper Dolls is a tear-jerker of a tale, following a little girl who, with her mother, makes a string of little people (‘Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie; Jim with two noses, and Jo with the Bow’).
The paper dolls populate the girl’s adventures. In this co-production with the Polka, staged at Islington’s small but adventurous home of puppetry, Little Angel Theatre, the dolls ride a bus, are chased by a crocodile, team up with a group of toy pigs and, in an all-too-realistic moment, are snipped to pieces by the girl’s belligerent older brother.
It’s at this point in the book that I usually begin sniffling. The shredded dolls re-group, and fly to a place in the little girl’s memory, where a lost hairslide, a starfish soap, and a kind granny are also to be found. The little girl grows up, becomes a mother herself, and makes a set of paper dolls with her own daughter. The book’s elegy on the passing of time, on love and loss, is heart-rendingly simple, and instantly recognisable.
This stage production, directed by Peter Glanville with design by Lyndie Wright, remains true to Rebecca Cobb’s sweet illustrations. The puppets are all curves and dimples; Julian Butler’s music is soft and lulling. The main difference is in the complexity of the relations between the family members. The girl – called Rosie in this production – throws a tantrum, and her mum gets cross. In the book the scissor-wielding destroyer of dolls is a nameless boy; at the Little Angel, it’s Rosie’s brother Tom who cuts up the dolls, as well as tormenting her by running off with toys.
This was the only uncomfortable point for my daughter. As a three-year-old with a five-year-old brother, she knows only too well how much of a pain older siblings can be. When Tom made an excursion into the crowd, and ended up perched on the end of my daughter’s seat, she squirmed unhappily away from him.
But the rest of the performance went down well. Andrea Sadler and Jane Crawshaw stepped seamlessly from maneuvering the puppets into playing characters themselves. David Duffy’s lighting was subtle, and set the tone; even though the story involved a chase or two, there was none of the enervating brightness and flickering that sometimes accompanies high drama. It was mellow all the way through, with a few twinkles to liven up proceedings.
I did manage to choke back the tears, but only just. If I was on my own, without needing to put on a brave face in front of my daughter, I’d have been in a puddle on the floor.
Disclosure: we were given tickets to Paper Dolls for the purpose of this review. All views are my own.
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.