London’s Hidden Gem – a talk and tour at the Little Angel Theatre

Little Angel Theatre

Since I moved to London I’ve enjoyed all kinds of theatre, and I’ve discovered a love for puppetry, which most certainly is not just for children. One of the major proponents of puppetry in the UK is the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, founded 55 years ago and still thriving.

Plaque

I discovered that the theatre were holding an evening event called London’s Hidden Gem, involving a talk and a tour of the theatre, so I booked a ticket (drawn in also by the prospect of wine). The theatre foyer is warm and inviting, decorated with puppets from previous productions, I had fun sipping my wine, trying to work out where the puppets were from, and chatting to the friendly staff.

Foyer

The auditorium is still the same one that was used all those years ago, and the seats are original, albeit reupholstered. The talk was delivered by Ronnie le Drew, one of the earliest apprentices at the theatre, who has been here since 1963, and who has also enjoyed a film and TV career. When he said he worked on Labyrinth, I had to suppress a fangirl squeal of delight, as this 1986 classic is one of my favourite films.

Theatre

He talked about the history of the theatre, which was founded by John Wright, as well as showing us some fascinating archive footage of the theatre being built on the site of a derelict temperance hall. There were also clips of a 1960s BBC show demonstrating the theatre in action, with laughing schoolchildren enjoying a show, and the construction of puppets (which can take around three weeks to make).

Puppet

Ronnie told us about the different kinds of puppets, including marionettes, shadow puppets and glove puppets, illustrating his descriptions with examples of those selfsame puppets, bringing them to life in front of our eyes. My favourite was the Dodo, with his warm pink blanket.

Workshop

Afterwards we got to go backstage, past the original proscenium arch to where the dressing rooms, lighting, scenery and puppets are located. Puppets might be smaller than humans, but you still need enough space for the puppeteers, particularly when they are operating marionettes and need to be able to get past one another on the bridge. Assorted puppets hang from the ceiling: I imagine this might be quite spooky at night. I recognised a couple from Jabberwocky, a production I saw.

Dog puppet

The final part of the tour was also the most hands on: we got to go into the workshop and have a go with various puppets ourselves, including an adorable little dog. The theatre runs courses for adults on puppetry, and it’s something that is on my bucket list to do one day.

Theatre logo

The theatre hopes to run these events again in the future. I had a lovely time and would definitely encourage going. They are designed for adults, but there was one little girl in our group accompanying her parents who seemed to be having just as much fun as the rest of us. I hope the theatre runs events like this again – they are really worthwhile.

Shakespeare Live from the RSC

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, you will be aware that it was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday. Celebrations were going on up and down the country, and the highlight for me was the Shakespeare Live show streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, to cinemas and on BBC2, where I watched from the sofa in my pyjamas.

I followed what people were saying on Twitter, and responses were mixed. I thought a lot of people would have preferred more actual Shakespeare, with actors performing scenes from his plays. Personally, though, I liked the variety: it showed how Shakespeare had inspired so many different people, from jazz musicians to comedians to ballet composers, and judging by other responses on Twitter, it engaged a lot of people who weren’t previously Shakespeare fans. In any case, I think the best way to see Shakespeare is in the context of a whole play: just seeing one or two scenes doesn’t have the same impact. That said, some of my favourite segments were those involving Shakespeare’s scenes, so what do I know?!

I have compiled an entirely personal, just-for-fun list of seven of my favourite moments from the show.

1. Catherine Tate’s ‘Seven Ages’ speech
Presenting the show with her Much Ado About Nothing co-star David Tennant, Tate delivered the famous ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech with the help of seven real people from the area: including a newborn baby, a local schoolboy, a serving soldier, and a retired RSC production manager.

2. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth
I would like to see these two in a full production of Macbeth now, please. They are both fantastic actors and they did this scene proud.

3. Judi Dench and Al Murray in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dame Judi and the Pub Landlord in a scene together? Unexpected, but it worked SO well.

4. The Horrible Histories Shakespeare sketch
“Who are you?” “William…” “..Shoppingtrolley?” Irreverent and hugely funny, this sketch in which Shakespeare showed up at a pub where Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were drinking together was brilliant.

5. Henry Goodman and Rufus Hound’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’
I love musicals anyway, so this was a given, but the pair’s performance was excellent, very tongue-in-cheek.

6. Sir Ian McKellen’s speech from Sir Thomas More
Sir Ian’s delivery of the hugely topical speech about refugees was poignant and perfectly-timed.

7. The ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ sketch
For me, this was hands-down the best part of the evening. From Tim Minchin’s “I’ll never play Hamlet in Stratford because I’m ginger!” to Judi Dench’s “I am Hamlet, the Dame” and Prince Charles’s closing intervention, it was a joy from start to finish, poking fun at theatrical conventions in a hilarious and irreverent way. Best of all was, after all that, when eight of the nine Hamlets (Minchin, Dench, HRH, Rory Kinnear, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harriet Walter, David Tennant and Ian McKellen) had departed the stage, Paapa Essiedu, who is currently playing the role at the RSC, delivered the famous speech in such a moving, fresh and thoughtful way that it reminded me no matter how many first-class Hamlets have been and gone, there are always plenty of greats left to come.

As a bonus, my final highlight of the night was reading the tweets of the Samuel French publishing account.

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Curtain Up – Theatre exhibition at the V&A

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Curtain Up exhibition

The V&A‘s new exhibition, Curtain Up, is a must for all theatre lovers. It’s small, and hard to find (I find the whole V&A pretty tricky to navigate to be honest), and it also includes the permanent theatre collection, so if you’ve visited before you may well end up with a sense of deja vu. That said, it’s free, and it includes several gems.

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The bright lights of Shaftesbury Avenue

The display, which runs until 31 August, has been created to mark 40 years of the Olivier Awards. It begins impressively, with the original Phantom mask and costume for “Masquerade”. It continues with a look into theatre history: I particularly loved Sir Henry Irving’s “Benedick” costume and the original piano from the musical Salad Days.

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The Phantom of the Opera

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Sir Henry Irving’s costume

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The piano from Salad Days

We were treated to an array of theatre posters, as well as several intricate set designs: the set for Matilda was one of my favourites. Helen Mirren’s costume for The Queen was another highlight.

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The Matilda set

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Helen Mirren’s costume

It was a treat to see War Horse‘s Joey up close, and really, that’s what this whole exhibition is – a treat. From the stunning costumes to the themed Chorus Line walkway, it’s a fascinating look behind the scenes at theatre both historical and modern.

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Joey from War Horse

Read Not Dead: Pandosto: The Triumph of Time

As part of the Read Not Dead season at the Globe, there was a performance of Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, the work that inspired Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The event was a bit different from usual, as Pandosto is not in fact a play, but a prose romance, written by Robert Greene and first published in 1588.

Despite this, the work was intelligently and entertainingly performed by the talented cast, who as usual performed script-in-hand and only had one day to rehearse. It was interesting to note the differences between Greene’s work and Shakespeare’s play: for example, the original work has Pandosto (Leontes) as the King of Bohemia, while his best friend is the King of Sicilia. In addition, when the former’s daughter Fawnia (Perdita) returns to her father’s kingdom with Dorastus (Florizel), the king falls in love with her, not realising that she is his daughter. He later kills himself, full of remorse for all the trouble he has caused: there is no resurrection of his wife here, and no redemption.

I will be interested to see The Winter’s Tale again, knowing of the original source for the play, and thinking about Shakespeare’s changes and what they might mean. A really enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoon.

Read Not Dead: The Injur’d Princess, or The Fatal Wager

I attended a Red Not Dead performance at the Globe’s Sackler Studios, a reading of Thomas d’Urfey’s The Injur’d Princess or The Fatal Wager. The play, first published in 1682, is an updated version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and I was interested to see how it differed from the Bard’s play. Urfey attempted to streamline the plot of Cymbeline, focusing on the character of Eugenia and her tragedy. Unfortunately, it did not enjoy great success at the time because the King’s Company, which first performed it, was failing, and the merger with the Duke’s Company soon afterwards lessened the need for new plays. However, it was revived in the eighteenth century, performed as a comedy of errors under the title The Fatal Wager.

I’m always impressed with the cast at these events as they only have one day to study the play and their parts. In particular, Oliver Bennett and Pearl Chanda as Ursaces and Eugenia, the chief couple, were excellent, and James Askill was also very good as the Queen’s son Cloten. My favourite was Martin Hodgson’s Jachimo: he managed to inject a great deal of humour into his role.

Directed by James Wallace, this was a really fun production of a lesser-known Restoration drama and I’m glad I made the effort to see it.

Read Not Dead: The Faithful Friends

At the weekend I attended a “Read Not Dead” staged reading of the play The Faithful Friends as part of Globe Education’s “Shakespeare & Friendship” season. “Read Not Dead” events are performances of little-known plays from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, performed script-in-hand by a brave cast of actors who only start rehearsing on the morning of the show. This particular performance took place at the Sackler Studios, which are just down the road from the Globe itself – presumably this was to keep us out of the way of the excited visitors attending the Globe’s annual Open Day (apparently there was an inflatable “Elsinore” bouncy castle so I don’t blame them for their excitement!).

The play was published in around 1614 and its author is unknown. I attended a Rarely Played lecture beforehand to find out more about it. The backstory is complex: a young man, Marius, returns to Rome from exile to find his friend Tulius has grown more powerful: he is favoured by the king and has been appointed a general. He has also married, though his wife, the beautiful Philadelpha, is as yet still a virgin. Meanwhile, Marius’ lover – Tulius’ sister – has disappeared, disguised as a boy and acting as page to Tulius, unbeknownst to him. The two friends go off to war and. as it was put to us: “melodrama ensues”.

Professor Grace Ioppolo from the University of Reading gave a fascinating talk emphasising the importance of manuscripts to play research, particularly this play as it is lesser known and only one published edition is known to exist. Undiscovered manuscripts do still turn up, as they have often spent years in the hands of private collections, many of whom do not know the value of what they have. Many known manuscripts are kept at the V&A.

The Professor explained some of the ways in which we can use a manuscript to find out more about it. Original manuscripts, written by the author, were often bound folio to folio, as a writer would not often know how long his work was going to be before beginning. Subsequent copies – scribe manuscripts – would normally be bound folio into folio in the style of a book, as a scribe would know how long their copied work would be. Presentation copies, for instance to give to patrons, would often be bound. Many existing copies of manuscripts originally belonged to the censor – at the time all plays had to go through the censor and he kept copies of them all.

Professor Grace suggested that the Faithful Friends manuscript was not a censor’s copy, but was produced later, as it contains comments and cuts, possibly made because of time constraints. This particular manuscript suffered water damage at some point, and the first few pages are newer, dating from around 1620-40, probably replaced after the damage. There is also an inserted leaf in someone else’s handwriting, containing either a new scene or a copy of an original that was lost. She also suggested that the play might have been written by John Fletcher.

The Read Not Dead performance itself was held across the road. It was long, but not at all dry or dull. Despite being a staged reading, the cast were mostly fluent in their speeches, characterising their roles well. This complex play got me thinking about who actually were the “faithful friends” of the title. There is so much betrayal and double-crossing and the play has a great deal to say about friendship and loyalty. It was also gripping: I found myself genuinely uncertain as to what was going to happen. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening Sunday afternoon.

Read Not Dead: The Troublesome reign of King John of England

The Globe are taking their “Read Not Dead” series of little-performed Jacobethan plays on tour, and I went to see The Troublesome reign of King John of England at the impressive Inner Temple Hall. George Peele’s 1591 play was an inspiration for Shakespeare’s own King John, and it was fascinating to see the similarities between the two works. I’ve seen Shakespeare’s work once before, and I’m sure some scenes were incredibly similar.

The “Read Not Dead” series sees actors reading from scripts, having only come to rehearsals on the day of the performance. Despite this, I was very impressed with the cast. Elliott Fitzpatrick was excellent as King John, while Joanne Howarth was particularly strong as Queen Eleanor. Mark Hammersley was also good as Philip “The Bastard” Falconbridge, despite going AWOL at one point during the second half!

The play was an enjoyable one, and my only real issue was the length – the performance was four hours long (including a half hour interval in which, to our relief, we were provided with tea and biscuits). Apparently the play was originally in two parts so this did make sense, but it was a bit of a slog! Still, I certainly don’t regret attending.