AdaptationChildrensFamilyNorth East & YorkshirePuppetryReview

The Bear – Leeds Playhouse

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Author: Raymond Briggs

Directors: Emma Earle and Hal Chambers

Pins and Needles Productions’ version of Raymond Briggs’ illustrated book The Bear has been a favourite with young audiences (3 to 8 year olds are the target) for some years now and it’s easy to see why. Currently it’s settled into Leeds Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre for daytime performances in half-term week before going back on the road to complete a tour that runs through to April.

The story tells of Tilly’s adventures when a very large white bear decides to join her in bed one night. Tilly is not at all scared and befriends the bear, even forgiving him when his clumsiness (he is very big) and lack of house-training give her more and more messes to clean up. Mummy and Daddy, of course, think that Tilly has an imaginary friend and the bear’s ability to hide despite his size – he loves hide and seek – tends to support that view, although Daddy once catches a brief glimpse of him – and could one little girl create so much mess on her own?

It would be easy for the human actors to be overshadowed by the puppetry of Finn Caldwell, notably the bear, worked for the most part by two puppeteers (Mummy and Daddy – who else?), but also a whole menagerie of other animals, both in Tilly’s house and at the North Pole. However, from the moment Abby Wain’s Tilly launches into the opening number by her band – herself, with her teddy on backing vocals – her vital personality, bouncing, punching, yelling, comes over. That exuberance never fades, though often tempered by more subtlety and gentleness. As Mummy and Daddy Elena Stephenson and John Winchester, when free of puppetry duty, are delightfully cheesy and suburban and all three whizz round the stage in a succession of funny walks in a sometimes exhausting 55 minutes which now and again slows effectively to a dreamy near-stillness.

Emma Earle and Hal Chambers direct a production where all the elements fit together perfectly. Zoe Squire’s designs are as practical as they are colourful and imaginative: a nicely versatile back wall and cute wheel-on-wheel-off furniture. Sam Wyer’s puppets look terrific, especially the sweetly ferocious bear. The music moves from Lucy Rivers’ original compositions (sometimes punk, sometimes pop, always fun) to such old favourites as Singin’ in the Rain when the bear sees himself headed for stardom as an ursine Gene Kelly. And the actors form an irresistibly silly, but oddly earnest, ensemble.

Runs until 22nd February 2020

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