REVIEW: The Bear, Pins & Needles Productions (The Albany)

We seem to have a habit of seeing adaptations of children’s books that we haven’t actually read. Mummy can never decide whether this is a good thing, but this didn’t stop her booking to see Pins & Needles’ production of Raymond Briggs’ The Bear. Mummy has fond memories of Briggs’ other books and is always impressed by productions at The Albany. So this sounded like a winning combination.

Upon arrival at The Albany, we were pleasantly surprised to find that everyone else seemed to have had the same idea as us. It was lovely to see the auditorium absolutely packed. And soon the room was filled with delighted squeals as a teddy bear was flung up and down from behind the scenes to entertain the waiting masses. To be honest, the kids (our 6 and 7 year olds included) were so entertained by the flying teddy, that you wonder whether they would have happily sat through that for an hour. But thankfully for the adults, we didn’t have to find out.

For those (like us) unfamiliar with the book, The Bear has echoes of another beloved Briggs book, The Snowman, revolving around a child’s relationship with a magical bedtime visitor. After befriending a big cuddly polar bear who comes in through her bedroom window, Tilly decides he should live in her house. But it’s not all fun and games, as Tilly soon discovers that bears take a lot of looking after. Meanwhile Mum and Dad are oblivious to the bear but not the chaos he creates. Is the house big enough for a giant (but well hidden) polar bear? Or will he have to go back to where bears belong?

Raymond Briggs’ book is brought to life through storytelling, song and some fantastic puppetry. The polar bear puppet is visually spectacular and incredibly versatile. He is brought to life by two puppeteers who double up as Tilly’s Mum and Dad (which explains why they never see him). Dressed in colourful costumes, there is no attempt to make them blend in against the white of the polar bear. This allows audiences to appreciate the puppetry itself and also hints at the question of whether (as Mum and Dad seem to believe) the bear is actually a figment of Tilly’s imagination. (Mummy and Mrs Mummy actually found this a bit distracting, and would have preferred them to be in darker colours or in white to blend in with the bear, but this didn’t seem to bother the children.) Despite the obvious presence of the puppeteers, this imposing puppet proved too scary for some of the youngest audience members, who made a swift exit.

For the youngsters who manage to brave the bear, there is plenty to keep them engaged throughout, including some memorable audience interaction in the moments where Tilly discovers that the bear is not toilet trained. There are also some smaller puppets, including an adorable baby bear and some other animals named Raymond and Briggs in a nice nod to the author. Although aimed predominantly at the children, there are some small moments thrown in for the adults, who will also undoubtedly be impressed by the clever puppetry on display. The set is colourful and cosy, representing the various rooms of Tilly’s house thanks to some movable props and a bit of imagination. It is also transformed into the North Pole at the end, through the use of a very simple but effective technique. (Seeing the cast in white at this stage also confirmed Mummy’s assumption that she would prefer the puppeteers to blend in against the bear.)

The Bear is a lovely show for very young audiences which vividly brings to life a classic story using some of the most impressive puppetry we have ever seen. It’s recommended for ages 3+ and we would suggest that it probably best suits ages 3-5, although there is enough there to entertain older children so it is probably a good option for taking siblings with a bit of an age gap. And it is definitely a great show to take children for their first live theatre experience. As long as they’re not scared of bears…..

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and a Solitary Mitten (aka 3.5 of my favourite things)

The Bear played at The Albany from 23-24 October 2019. It continues to tour the United Kingdom in 2019-2020. See tour dates here.