An Alternative Christmas Show: Beauty and the Beast at Norwich Puppet Theatre
Posted by Georgina Parfitt on December 10th, 2014
Puppet theatres are rare treasures in the theatre community. I’ve only met two so far, the Little Angel Theatre in London, and the Norwich Puppet Theatre, stowed away off-centre in my home town.
They are small, intimate, woody and crafty spaces. There is spontaneity about evenings at the puppet theatre that allows belief to be suspended and new things to be found in old stories.
The Norwich Puppet Theatre is particularly magical at holiday time, and for the premiere of its new Christmas show, Beauty and the Beast, it’s packed with wrapped-up visitors, puppeteers, friends and family of the show. Mince pies and mulled wine. Puppets hanging, as usual, from the rafters, but somehow more festive tonight, their wooden cheeks almost ruddy. I have been invited by Rosemarie Gibaud, who was part of the original Pelham Puppet factory team in the 1940’s. At over 90 years of age, Rosemarie shows how the puppet theatre brings the whole theatre community together. As the show starts, she giggles along with the children and other audience members, watching the horse clop onto stage, gazing calmly around at us.
Cast of Beauty and the Beast, Image by Denise Bradley
This winter, the Norwich Puppet Theatre’s Christmas show is its own take on Beauty and the Beast. Almost completely unrecognizable from the Disney story from my childhood, this spectacular is set in 1930’s America. Belle, her father, and the family horse, with little to their name, are wandering the desert when they happen upon a mysterious vulture, who leads them to a haunted abode, where devilishly stylish Hollywood producer Merrill is waiting and eager to turn Belle into a star. But stardom is much… stranger than Belle anticipated.
The puppeteers create a funny, musical, American energy. The characters are witty and snarky, adding a new buzz to the traditional tale. Not to mention, they’re beautifully carved, with vintage velvet and tulle Gatsby-esque costumes, and sparkling marble eyes that seem to engage directly and cheekily with the audience.
The set transforms beautifully, offering the audience myriad views and perspectives on the story. When Belle is taken to Hollywood a little plane whirrs onto the stage from above, and bobs away to the excited sounds of Belle and the leery gushing of Merrill. Later, when Belle is poked, prodded, and… enlarged, by Merrill’s make-up team, giant sets of tweezers and other torturous devices descend on the poor puppet. The company’s experiments with scale and guiding the audience’s eye really work, giving the show a sinister edge and a cinematic quality.
One of the most exciting things to me about this puppet theatre is its ability to give benevolent characters and family stories an exciting, original edge; it reminds us that even at Christmas, the innovative can join the traditional to make really provocative, imaginative storytelling.
You’ve tons of chances to catch this beautiful show, from December 23rd to January 17th. And it’s well worth the trip.