Review: The Everywhere Bear, The Polka Theatre, Wimbledon (5 stars!)

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Mini Cheek, aged 5, is walking down the road towards South Wimbledon tube station alternating between going backwards, being a robot and not standing on the cracks on the pavement. As he goes, every now and then he sings “The Everywhere Bear, The Everywhere Bear”. I’m afraid that’s it as far as lyrics go, he’s on a loop. The reason is because we are returning home from The Polka Theatre and a musical production of yes, The Everywhere Bear by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Rebecca Cobb and he’s pretending to be Matt (“who is new”),  the central non-bear character on his way to school.

I must admit, we’d not read this book before we went but I had quietly sobbed while reading The Paper Dolls which is another Donaldson/Cobb collaboration, we own a copy of one of the illustrator’s solo books; Lunchtime and I have previously enjoyed reading another one; The Something, as part of a Library Storytime.  This story about a Classroom bear who gets lost on his way back to school after a eventful weekend being a friend to the newest member of Class 1 had a lot to live up to then.

We’d also never been to The Polka Theatre either and it was an instant hit the minute we realised that there was a rocket blasting into the ceiling of the downstairs foyer, a chest full of dressing up clothes and a small playground with a dragon ship and a miniature Tudor House in it! They also have a lovely looking cafe next door which a small person was keen to go into afterwards for ice cream but evil mummy had brought snacks so dragged him to a local park instead!

We joined the back of the queue to go into the downstairs Adventure Theatre and saw the simple wooden set and the two actors playing with toys on it already. There are stepped bench seats at the back and sides if you are at the front of the queue and the floor for everyone else. The theatre is the epitome of an intimate space and the production (and ultimately sitting on the floor) works beautifully within it. I knew there would be puppets but I had imagined they would be giant but the fact that they were actually rather small was perfect for the space and the story.

There are two main puppets; the bear and Matt, manipulated by 2 adult actors, who also sang all the gentle, charming songs, moved the swiss-army knife-esque scenery around, performed all the other mostly animal puppetry and played all the other eccentric, amusing or kindly characters. One character even juggles much to the delight of the impressed audience!

The interaction between puppet Matt, who is desperate to find a friend in a new school and the bear puppet is extremely touching (little pats on the head for the bear and cuddles at bedtime…aww so cute) and the way the actors work together as a team to move him, makes him such an expressive character. It actually made this grown up forget I was watching a puppet a little, so I can only imagine how much Mini Cheek must have loved it and become fully immersed (I did enjoy looking at him giving it his full rapt attention…when I could drag my eyes away).

The story moves from  a classroom to a library (Oooh I’ve done that journey…am I the bear? Nope not smelly enough I hope) via a fishing boat, Mrs Bishop’s Fish Shop and a rubbish tip, when a rainstorm and a puddle accidently washes the Everywhere Bear down the drain and into the sewer.  With each new stop in the bear’s journey back home to his shelf in Class 1 and the children who take him everywhere at the weekend, the actors, with a seemingly effortless slight of hand, unpack and transform the set.

The lighting design works fabulously and subtly with it, for example when the bear is flying in the beak of a gull beneath a full moon and above a night-time cityscape with multicoloured lights glowing in the windows. Mini Cheek and I properly gasped for that one and I know it because by this point in the 45 minute production he’d requested a most enjoyable snuggle on my lap to watch in the dark. We also gasped in the library scene where the heroic and thoughtful librarian who loves rhymes, was showing a selection of books which the Class One children had chosen to read. The Production’s design team have created books that celebrate their beauty and just like the author/illustrator themselves value the importance of books for children (I definitely want a Sparkly space book now!).  One of the songs even reassures the audience that there are always “Happy Endings” in stories.  I also loved how they had infused the whole production with the style of Rebecca Cobb: the puppets really look like 3-D representations of her characters and they include her drawings on props and scenery when singing songs about the other children in the class. (Amazingly we almost got the chance to meet her at the end of the show as she was signing books in the foyer but Mini Cheek had a desperate desire to check out the playground and climbing the mini Tudor House stairs, and mummy was overcome with a bad case of The Famous Person Shys)

When I asked my Wee One what he liked best about the show after he’d given it an instantaneous round of applause at the end, without the need for any prodding from me, his answer straightaway was “the music” and I must admit I have found myself humming the lyrical songs of Julian Butler to myself since Saturday. Of course music also has the ability to make this emotional light weight cry and it was perhaps not surprising that when we got to the middle section of the story where the Bear is stuck on the rubbish tip after being thrown in a tip and actor Amy Tweed had started singing “ Everything we‘ve ever lost and everything  we’ve ever loved, is not gone for good, it maybe near us, nothing really disappears, nothing is ever really lost”, as if on cue Boy threw me his “ Ah-oh things are beginning to get emotional!”  look  to check if mummy had started to cry yet! What can I say I was looking at it from many levels that the under 6s also watching might not be thinking of:  memories of loved ones and special things, the environmental impact of things not biodegrading! Too deep? Maybe, but I don’t think so!

At the end of the production we got to meet the puppets and actors. Mini Cheek got to have his photo holding The Everywhere Bear’s hand and I think he felt as shy yet excited at meeting the bear as the actor. That is the power of good theatre. To sweep you away on a journey to visit new places and to meet new friends. To give you an experience you will love and share and never lose the memory of. To send you out to the world with a tune in your heart and a story in your head. To hopefully give you that happy ending.

“The Everywhere Bear has a home on a Shelf,

But he doesn’t spend very much time by himself…”

Mini Cheek wanted to give it 5 Stars (out of 5) and I’d give it at least 4!

If you’d like to join The Everywhere Bear on his adventure it’s showing from now until 26thAugust 2018 and is aimed at 3 to 6 year olds at The Polka Theatre, Wimbledon.

Ticket Prices for Adults and Children are £12.50, Concessions £9.

They are also currently staging a production of Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson on their main stage for children 7 and above until 5thAugust.

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Laura was gifted tickets to this show. Her review is honest and her genuine opinion.

Laura Cheek is currently a SAHM who is also a qualified primary teacher. This means her poor family have to put up with "The Look", the bossiness and far too much "tut" that might be useful one day. She loves her local community and has her fingers in many voluntary pies. One day she will be an organised, graceful, stylish, domestic goddess. Today is not that day.

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