Review: The Bear at Norden Farm
A polar bear puppet delivers the spirit of Christmas while pooing and weeing all over Tilly's house. Alternative, yes, but The Bear, is pure magic.
It’s amazing how a teddy bear playing peekaboo can whip up a theatre full of kids from sedate to sugar-fuelled hyperactivity without a single Haribo passing their lips. But Norden Farm’s family festive production has that effect on everyone. Pins and Needles Productions bring their clever puppetry and superb storytelling to give you the festive feels without hitting the mulled wine and mainlining mince pies (although you can do that too). This year’s offering? The Bear, adapted from Raymond Briggs’ 1994 picture book.
Raymond Briggs is, of course, synonymous with Christmas having given us tear-jerker The Snowman in 1978 and later Aled Jones’ pre-pubescent high notes in the 1982 Bafta-winning short film. A staggering 16 years later, Briggs published The Bear and the stage show that followed is pure magic. Ticking the boxes of what children’s theatre should be: funny, sensitive, emotive and the ability to wow. If the kids’ eyes are not like as big as saucers at least once, then it’s a festive fail. But an imaginatively created polar bear puppet certainly does the trick.
If you’re not familiar with the Briggs’s story, The Bear, it’s about a girl called Tilly who wakes to discover a polar bear has climbed through her bedroom window. Well, if Father Christmas can enter our homes via the chimney, then a bear can climb through the window, right? But Tilly, who dreams of being a pop star, is not scared of her new house guest, but thrilled to have a new friend, even if it wreaks havoc, pooing and weeing on the floor. Kids (and grown ups) love a bit of toilet humour, so it gets a lots of laughs.
Directors Emma Earle and Hal Chambers’s show taps into minds of children with a creative set and a script that grounds the story in the familiar setting of hum-drum family life. The frazzled parents go about their routines, and indulge Tilly’s wild imagination, whether it be performing her latest pop video, wearing Elton John glasses or taking care of a big white furry friend. Oh we’ve all been there. My most recent Oscar-winning performances have included Power Ranger and T Rex.
At first glance the stage looks colourful yet simple, but the set transforms from Tilly’s bedroom into a kitchen, garden and bathroom with a few spins of the mobile pieces – and the bubbles pumped over the heads of the audience during the bear’s bath was a nice touch, made even better with the help of a supersoaker. I think we all know who gets a drenching.
The cast bring oodles of energy and charm to this show, but it is the polar bear who is the star. Created by Samuel Wyer, this giant puppet is totally believable. It’s a two-person job to operate him (Mum and Dad take it turns to control body and feet). Yes, he’s that big. The body is made of a huge, fur covered rings, with the giant paws that look like comedy slippers. The puppeteers work together and convincingly mimic the bear’s movements from getting his bottom stuck climbing through the window to the body shuffles needed to get comfy for sleep. All we needed was a David Attenborough voiceover and the illusion would be complete.
You’re left questioning whether Bear is real or a figment of Tilly’s imagination. I’ll leave that one with you, but there’s no better time to tap into a child’s ability to trust and dream big. You won’t be able to wrap it and stick it under the tree, but that’s pretty much the essence of Christmas with a bow on top.
The Bear is on at Norden Farm Maidenhead from now until Sunday 29 December. Performances on Sat 30 Nov at 11am and Sat 28 Dec at 11am are Relaxed – ideal for children with SEND. Everyone is welcome but the house lights are kept on and audience members can come and go as they please.