Sale Waterside has delivered some fine Christmas family shows in recent years, specialising in hand-crafted, smaller-scale work that punches above its weigh and delights younger audiences. This year, they’re offering The Bear, a suitably snowy adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s 1994 picture book. As with many of Briggs’s books, it’s far from being a high-octane adventure, and this production, by Bristol-based theatre company Pins and Needles and directed by Hal Chambers and Emma Earle, captures its gentle drift nicely.
A cast of three – Leigh Quinn as little Tilly, with Lori Hopkins and Maxwell Tyler as her parents – bring the story to life, with Hopkins and Tyler doubling as puppeteers. That’s because, among a variety of other neat little theatrical tricks, the eponymous bear is realised as an extraordinary, impressionistic puppet, not unlike a huge telescopic piñata, with movements and growls provided live by the pair. This is a gamble which really works, and for the assembled small theatregoers, yes, that’s a bear up there. Even his immobile expression manages to be quizzical and likeable by turns.
The truth is, though, that Quinn is the real star of the show as Tilly, a bundle of cheeky, adorable energy who’s very quick to engage with. The bear might become her friend, but audiences will feel like they’ve become Tilly’s friend too. The score is adaptable and evocative, and at around an hour long the whole piece ticks along very nicely. Additional touches, like snow and bubbles falling into the audience on cue, are cannily deployed to fine effect.
If there are drawbacks, it’s that, in being faithful to Briggs’s book, not a whole lot actually happens.
Essentially, it’s a jolly caper in which Tilly enjoys set-piece shenanigans with the big furry fella, in particular a smartly-choreographed bathroom episode. With the short running time it’s not necessary to develop a twisty-turny plot, but it could possibly have done with just a touch more substance to it. Plus, the puppeteers don’t alter their costumes, and there are points when it might baffle audiences as to why, as parents, they’re helping the bear climb through windows and rip up pillows. Like other Raymond Briggs books, it ends on a slightly melancholy note, but the staging here manages to turn that into something uplifting and touching (in the name of full disclosure, it probably didn’t help the emotional temperature that Northern Soul‘s in-house youngster was temporarily indisposed on the night).
The Waterside has programmed performances at an early evening time of 6pm, and encourages attendees to come in pyjamas with their teddies for milk and cookies as they watch. Sure enough, this is a lovely big cuddle of a show, skilfully done and with some moments of true magic. It might not quite scale the heights like the Waterside’s 2015 production of Moominland Midwinter, but only the hardest of hearts would come out at the end without a smile on their face as well as a little happy/sad tear.
The Bear is at Sale Waterside until January 6, 2018. For information, or to book tickets, visit the website.