“The Hobbit” versus “The Tinderbox” at Norwich Puppet Theatre

My husband and I have been going down to Norfolk regularly for a good many years to visit his family, (who live in the Kings Lynn area).  In all these years we have never got around to seeing a production at the Norwich Puppet Theatre.

So this Christmas we decided to treat ourselves to a trip to Norwich and went to see “The Hobbit” at the cinema, (with the special frame rate) and “The Tinderbox” at Norwich Puppet Theatre on the same day.  I had visited the theatre before to audition for their “Little Red Riding Hood” show but it was quite different being an audience member.

We struggled through horrendous traffic to see “The Hobbit” first, (the puppet show was in the evening).  We arrived just in time to get something to eat and then went in to see the film.

I am very hard to please when it comes to adaptations of books I like.  I always spot any deviations from the plot right away as I have an extremely good memory, (it comes in useful for learning scripts).  I thought Peter Jackson did a fantastic job with the Lord of the Rings so I was hoping I’d be equally pleased with The Hobbit.

I was very pleased that the songs had been kept in, and the humourous scene with the dwarves throwing Bilbo’s crockery about was better than I’d imagined.

I had heard that Barry Humpreys was to be the Goblin King and he was also brilliant and just as I had imagined in the book.  Good also were the classic riddling scene with Gollum and the adventure with the trolls.

However at various points, (including the episode with the trolls) Bilbo was made into a cleverer and more heroic figure than he is in the book.  This seemed to have been done so that the dwarves would gain some confidence in Bilbo by the end of the film and the audience would want to see the second film because the main character has been revealed to be a hero and not just a wimp who wants to go home all the time.  In the book the growth of Bilbo’s confidence and heroism is much slower and half the charm is Bilbo’s ordinariness as he stands in for the person reading the book.  In real life most people would prefer tea and cake to being in danger of death and so it is with Bilbo.

I had also been looking forward to seeing my childhood’s Dr. Who, Sylvester McCoy, in the role of Radagast the Brown.  I tried my hardest to like it, but his performance was out of step with the rest of the film.  He seemed to be in a children’s movie and the rest was like Lord of the Rings – very adult in tone and with lots of violence and excessive amounts of gore.  Don’t get me wrong, gore is okay in Lord of the Rings, but The Hobbit is a children’s book and I wanted a child friendly film to match.  I think Sylvester’s performance suffered from having to interact with too many CGI effects.  The hedgehogs, rabbits and even his house were not at all convincing and I struggled to get a sense of the danger of the Necromancer from a CGI hedgehog behaving very unnaturally, to say nothing of the giant bunny rabbits.  A bit more gravitas in McCoy’s manner and using real hedgehogs would have been better in my view.  I think the Wargs should have been more like real wolves instead of turning them into weird deformed looking creatures too, they are described merely as giant wolves in the book.

I did not remember a great deal about the story of The Tinderbox so came to the show fairly fresh.  The one thing I did remember was the three dogs with the enormous eyes.  I was very taken with the illustrations of them I had seen in a book of the story when I was younger.  I thought they had an uncanny and rather alarming appearance which gave me a pleasurable thrill of excitement when I was reading it.

The puppets were very visually appealing and a world away from the Hobbit’s CGI.  The puppet used carved wood, old kitchen implements and other found objects such as the flint that created the witch’s head.  The techniques used in the show were all very slick and professional, though there were one or two little things that didn’t work as well as they could have done such as a shadow that was being cast onto a black animated backdrop showing a ferris wheel.  There was a point near the beginning where the turntable stage’s movement was not very obvious because it did not have any “landmarks” on it as well.  It would have worked better if it had stripes of different colours painted onto it perhaps.

They used two performers who passed the puppets back and forth between them and even had both performers voice the same characters at different points in the show.  I think this would have worked better if they merely swapped operators but kept the same voice actor for each character for better continuity.  On the other hand the parts where both performers voiced the witch at the same time gave an uncanny doubling, echoing effect which was quite a nice idea.

I think both myself and my husband Tim’s favourite characters were the King and Queen humanettes.  They charmingly referred to each other as “Mr. Queen” and “Mrs. King” some of the lines they came out with were priceless, such as when they threatened to turn the soldier into a teddy bear and hug him to death as a punishment.  Seonaid Goody’s high pitched voice and spoilt rotten, child like nastiness were fantastic and her constant refrains of “eugh yucky!” filled me with glee.  It was quite interesting that the King & Queen and the pursuit of wealth and materialism were the real villains of the story rather than the witch.  It seemed that the witch’s goal seemed only to teach the soldier a lesson and improve his life as a result and did not seem to bear any malice over having her head cut off at all!

I loved the sequence where the soldier spending all his money was illustrated by him removing coins from his money-box stomach and rolling them down a set of ramps, (like you get on some charity boxs) to land in a bucket with a satisfying chinking noise.  It was great visual story-telling and the performers acted out the various scrounging characters who were after his money brilliantly.

I’m afraid that the dogs could never be as impressive as they were in my imagination as a child, but they had a good go at it.  The dog with eyes made of real tea cups and with a wooden spoon for the body was particularly charming.

So which did I like best?  The film with all the 3-D fast frame photography and all the sets costumes and famous actors that money can buy and the latest CGI animation, (The Hobbit) or the down to earth live performance made using bits of crockery and copper kettles, (The Tinderbox)?  The truth is I liked them both, though I think the puppet show had the edge for me.  Good quality live entertainment is just that bit more special than a film at the cinema, however brilliant.

I was particularly glad to see a show at Norwich Puppet Theatre which was very well made and performed and of great quality. Norwich Puppet Theatre are a great success story having bounced back from funding cuts and have successfully secured a fresh Arts Council England Grant to produce this and other new work, (CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE).  I was very glad to support their work and hope they continue to make more excellent new shows like this one well into the future.

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