We certainly aren’t short of quirky arts venues in our wonderful capital city, but as far as theatrical locations go; this one’s definitely up there among the quirkiest. The Puppet Theatre Barge is the UK’s only floating puppet theatre, and last year marked 40 years of bobbing on the Thames and producing high-quality puppetry for this beautifully converted barge.
So lets go back to the very beginning and how it all started. Gren Middleton and Juliet Rogers co-founded the (very much on-land) Movingstage Marionette Company in 1979 and spent a few years touring their marionette shows. They then decided that they fancied somewhere slightly more permanent to set up shop – and what do you do when you want a permanent location for your theatre company, but can’t quite get on board with the eye-watering prices of London real-estate? You buy an 80 foot-long boat and get on board that instead, of course. And thus, The Puppet Theatre Barge was born.
The barge was lovingly converted into a theatre, specifically designed to put on shows using string marionettes, and officially opened to the public on January 28, 1982. Back then, it was docked at Camden Lock and would tour the Grand Union Canal throughout the summer. Over 40 years later, Stan Middleton, the grandson of Gren and Juliet, is proudly still running the Puppet Theatre Barge, which has continued to produce critically-acclaimed and magically unique marionette and animation shows – but nowadays, it travels as far up the Thames as Oxford.
Watching a show on the Puppet Theatre Barge is a truly immersive experience for audience members. Their journey begins the moment they step on the gangplank, climb on board, descend below the waterline and leave the real world behind. It might be a good time to mention that it’s an entirely indoor venue (so you can leave your brolly’s at home – or maybe at the door – we are in London after all) and the boat itself doesn’t actually move, apart from a little bit of rockiness if a large boat passes by. Retired puppets from across the globe adorn the walls and the raked seating means each and every one of the 55 seats in the theatre has an excellent view of the action.
The ship’s bell rings to signal the start of the performance in which the string marionettes are operated from above by the puppeteers (who are never seen). The barge specialises in putting modern twists on traditional tales and kids classics, but they also produce specific adult-only performances as well as hosting live music, comedy and cabaret events on the barge too.
The barge is currently anchored in Richmond (with their performance of The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse) but next month it will be floating up to Little Venice, where it will be spending the winter months. The Puppet Theatre Barge aim to promote live animation and present new music and writing whenever possible, all whilst giving the audience a truly imaginative experience.
The Puppet Theatre Barge is managed and run by a registered charity, Art of the Puppet, which was founded in 1978 to apply its income to puppetry in education – both directly in schools and in a wider sense for children and adults of all ages.
Find out more about what shows are currently on and plan your visit here.