Update: The Bear returns to the Albany Deptford from 22-24 October 2019.
When I was hoovering today, I found a bit of bear’s wee on our dining room floor.
Perhaps I need to backtrack a little, to explain that sentence.
For those of you who are familiar with Raymond Briggs’ The Bear, you’ll know that it features an enormous polar bear, who climbs in through the bedroom window of a little girl. The bear is cuddly, warm and a fine companion to the girl (called Tilly), who seems rather lonely at home, with only her teddy for company while Mum and Dad work.
But, as well as being a cosy beast to cuddle up to, the bear shows his feral side, wreaking havoc in the kitchen, and leaving behind a gigantic poo, as well as wee for Tilly to clear up.
The Bear has been transformed into a stage show by Pins and Needles, whose other spellbinding performance based on a Briggs book, Father Christmas at the Lyric Hammersmith, I’ve reviewed here. After a well-received stint at Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre, The Bear travelled to The Albany, a small community theatre in Deptford which consistently punches above its weight.
At The Albany, there was a large space at the front of the audience, with mats on the floor so that children could get really close to the action. Hence the bear wee on our floor – when a shower of golden tinsel was thrown onto the stage to signify the bear’s tinkle, it sent children scrabbling around to collect bits that had strayed into the audience. My children left the show clutching these treasures, along with a couple of feathers that had escaped from the body of the bear itself.
And what a bear it was. This incredible puppet looked otherworldly; when it emerged onto the stage, I was put in mind of the majestic puppets from Damon Albarn’s interpretation of Monkey at the Royal Opera House. Samuel Wyer’s creation would have been just as much at home in a stately auditorium like the ROH. The puppet was made up of rings, covered in fur and white feathers, which pulsed along as it moved. It managed to look both powerful and cuddly at the same time.
Although the bear puppet was jaw-dropping, this was a friendly show, with Tilly (played by Naomi Stafford) coming to sit with the children before the performance began, to chat to them about her toys. Zoe Squire’s set was slick, eye-catching and fun. My only quibble would be that the costumes of Tilly’s parents (played by Suzanne Nixon and Dan Gingell) were bright and colourful – perhaps a little too much so; when the actors turned into the bear’s puppeteers, I would have preferred them to be in darker, less obvious clothes, so there was less visual distraction.
This production was directed by Hal Chambers and Emma Earle. As well as originally directing Father Christmas, Earle was also responsible for Adventures in Wonderland, based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and which for us was the knock-out children’s show of the summer (the puppets for Alice were also designed by Wyer). Earle’s shows consistently combine warm-hearted fun with slightly darker (but non-threatening) elements. In Wonderland, the darkness came from the craziness of the world that Alice found herself in. Father Christmas’ grumpiness, true to the Briggs novel, was very much in evidence at the performance we saw at the Lyric. And, in The Bear, the huge beast was just a teeny bit scary. Not so much as to properly frighten the kids – and there is a very sweet bit at the end, which I won’t give away – but The Bear does have an edge, which raises it above a lot of the cutesy Christmas fare on offer.
Our little family is thoroughly enjoying these Pins and Needles productions. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
The Bear is at The Albany, Deptford from 22-24 October 2019. You can read more, and book tickets, here. It is suitable for children aged 2 and over. I was given press tickets for the purpose of this review.
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.