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Or….Memories of Norwich Puppet Theatre.

Some extraordinary things appear as if from nowhere, and then after a while they become normal, and then taken for granted, their origins ignored and unknown.

Such is the case of Norwich Puppet Theatre, one of a very very few dedicated spaces in the UK, and as rare as hens’ teeth. Hand to Mouth Theatre (Martin and Su) has a long connection with the place and the people involved in it, stretching right back to its beginnings 40 years ago.

Fresh out of Art College, we rented a winter let on the Norfolk Broads, with the intention of helping establish a new craft gallery.  At the time we had performed a little with an experimental animated show, and also a traditional one. We felt in awe of arts professionals in general, and of Ray and Joan Da Silva in particular, as Martin had strong memories of watching their popular large scale productions as a young teenager. So one time when we went on our weekly bus journey into Norwich we visited the decommissioned church that was to become the puppet theatre, we felt too shy to go in amongst the building work and rubble to say “Hello.” Silly really, in retrospect.

Two or three years later (1981) Martin was awarded a bursary from the Gulbenkian foundation administered by the Puppet Centre in London, and we travelled back up to go to their AGM at the newly opened theatre, and a little after that Martin joined the Da Silvas for a short run of “Hansel and Gretel”, a large scale marionette show that toured northern and midlands theatres, including the Sunderland Empire.

Martin with Stephen Mottram in “Hansel and Gretel”

A few years later (1990), having established his own touring company,  Martin was amazed and delighted to be booked at the theatre for his solo “Big Top and Small Tales” show. Hand to Mouth have performed almost every year since , sometimes as solo performers, and sometimes together, and sometimes visiting more than once a year.

With our children Leo and Rose outside the theatre, beneath billboard for our “Goldilocks” show

We performed at the 25th anniversary celebrations, and our abiding memory was standing backstage holding our portable stage on a rucksack arrangement for what seemed like half an hour while the previous act waited for kettles of water to be supplied for their water puppet spoof, as the theatre’s boiler had broken.

We’ve been aware of the roller coaster of difficulties of keeping the NPT alive, have watched artistic directors come and go, and have been full of admiration for the tenacity of Ian Woods in particular. Special mention should also go to all the behind the scenes people, the volunteers, and to the extraordinary dedication of Darren who puts in endless hours covering a host of duties. Live and interactive theatre is needed now more than ever, as a counter-balance to excessive screentime, and Norwich Puppet Theatre surely deserves greater appreciation and be more highly valued.

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