Penny Francis joins The Puppet Barge as they celebrate 25 years of animated life
In 1986 there was an article in the original print version of Animations (Year 9 No.3) featuring the Movingstage Marionettes – that is to say Gren and Juliet Middleton, and their recently founded theatre-on-a-barge.
The story of the Barge’s beginnings still makes exciting reading: how its conversion was undertaken by a totally inefficient bunch of cowboys whose knowledge of boats seemed negligible, so that the Middletons had themselves to do much of the hard work; how tons of wet concrete was poured into the boat at low tide when she was listing, so that the floor was two and a half inches higher on one side than the other and had to be done again; how in the Limehouse basin a passing stranger, hearing the engine running, loosened the mooring rope and “suddenly they were racing with the tide up the Thames towards Westminster, totally out of control” and were rescued by the Thames police. There were more adventures before they got to their first mooring – Camden Lock. The move to their present home in Little Venice, St. John’s Wood (a little northwest of central London) was in 1987.
In February 1982 they opened, against all the odds, with a successful production of The Ancient Mariner, a good example of their wish to produce theatre for adults by outstanding authors (Lorca, Barker, Wendy Cope, Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare), as well as entertaining shows for the young. The medium of choice is the string marionette, the house aesthetic being dreamy and measured, sometimes full of symbolism, always beautifully lit (Gren was a professional lighting designer). They choose top flight actors to record the soundtracks.
The Barge is an attractive theatre, seating 50 to 60 on raked tiers, with many puppets from the Far East on display. The Middletons are invariably hospitable, filling the boat with an atmosphere of warmth. On the night when they celebrated their 25th anniversary they presented their version of Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness to many wellwishers, members of the company, family and friends. Afterwards they repaired to another boat a few yards away to toast the company and the Puppet Barge.
The Puppet Centre Trust takes pleasure in toasting them again – congratulations, Gren and Juliet, and a happy future to the Movingstage Marionettes and the Barge.
Described as ‘one of London's more elusive treasures’, the Puppet Barge presents marionette and rod puppet spectacles throughout the year, spending the winter in Little Venice, central London and the summer on the River Thames from July to October giving performances at Henley-on-Thames, Marlow, Cliveden and Richmond-on-Thames.
For further on Movingstage Marionette Company and The Puppet Barge, details of this summer’s shows, and to book tickets, see: www.puppetbarge.com