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Lyndie Wright, Puppeteer

July 30, 2014
by the gentle author

As a child, I was spellbound by the magic of puppets and it is an enchantment that has never lost its allure, so I was entranced to visit The Little Angel Theatre in Islington recently for the first time. All these years, I knew it was there –  sequestered in a hidden square beyond the Green and best approached through a narrow alley overgrown with creepers like a secret cave.

Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I were welcomed by Lyndie Wright who co-founded the theatre in 1961 with her husband John in the shell of an abandoned Temperance Chapel. “We bought the theatre for seven hundred and fifty pounds,” she admitted cheerfully, letting us in through the side door,“but we didn’t realise we had bought the workshop and cottage as well.”

More than half a century later, Lyndie still lives in the tiny cottage and we discovered her carving a marionette in the beautiful old workshop. “People travel for hours to get to work, but I just have to walk across the yard,” she exclaimed over her shoulder, absorbed in concentration upon the mysterious process of conjuring a puppet into life. “Carving a marionette is like making a sculpture,” she explained as she worked upon the leg of an indeterminate figure, “each piece has to be a sculpture in its own right and then it all adds up to a bigger sculpture.” In spite of its lack of features, the figure already possessed a presence of its own and as Lyndie turned and fondled it, scrutinising every part like puzzled doctor with a silent patient, there was a curious interaction taking place, as if she were waiting for it to speak.

“I made puppets as a child,” she revealed by way of explanation, when she noticed me observing her fascination. Growing up and going to art school in South Africa, Lyndie applied for a job with John Wright who was already an established puppet master, only to be disappointed that nothing was available. “But then I got a telegram,” she added, “and it was off on an eight month tour including Zimbabwe.”

After the tour, Lyndie came to Britain continue her studies at Central School of Art and John was seeking a location to create a puppet theatre in London. “The chapel had no roof on it and we had to approach the Temperance Society to buy it,” Lyndie recalled, “We did everything ourselves at the beginning, even laying the floorboards and scraping the walls.” Constructed upon a corner of a disused graveyard, they discovered human remains while excavating the chapel to create raked seating as part of the transformation into a theatre with a fly tower and bridge for operating the marionettes. Today, the dignified old frontage stands proudly and the auditorium retains a sense of a sacred space, with attentive children in rows replacing the holy teetotallers of a former age.

“I had intended to return to South Africa, but I had fallen in love with John so there was no going back,” Lyndie confided fondly, “in those days, we sold the tickets, worked the puppets, performed the shows, and then rushed round and made the coffee in the interval – there were just five of us.” At first it was called The Little Angel Marionette Theatre, emphasising the string puppets which were the focus of the repertoire but, as the medium has evolved and performers are now commonly visible to the audience, it became simply The Little Angel Theatre. Yet Lyndie retains a special affection for the marionettes, as the oldest, most-mysterious form of puppetry in which the operators are hidden and a certain magic prevails, lending itself naturally to the telling of stories from mythology and fairytales.

John Wright died in 1991 but the group of five that started with him in Islington in 1961 were collectively responsible for the growth and development in the art of puppetry that has flourished in this country in recent decades, centred upon The Little Angel Theatre. Generations of puppeteers started here and return constantly bringing new ideas, and generations of children who first discovered the wonder of the puppet theatre at The Little Angel come back to share it with their own children.

“The less you show the audience, the more they have to imagine and the more they get out of it,” Lyndie said to me, as we stood together upon the bridge where the puppeteers control the marionettes, high in the fly tower. The theatre was dark and the stage was empty and the flies were hung with scenery ready to descend and the puppets were waiting to spring into life. It was an exciting world of infinite imaginative possibility and I could understand how you might happily spend your life in thrall to it, as Lyndie has done.

Old cue scripts, still up in the flies from productions long ago

Larry, the theatrical cat

Lyndie Wright

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Visit The Little Angel Theatre website for details of current productions

28 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenny Atins permalink
    July 30, 2014

    A wonderful story. If only there were more places like this. I grew up being taken to puppet theatres and marionette shows but as far as I know there are very few around today. I did see a wonderful one a few years ago in Barcelona, in El Born the old Gothic quarter. As Lyndie says the less you show the more work the imagination does.

  2. July 30, 2014

    I would love to be able to visit there – what a wonderful place to work and live. Lyndie looks so happy, she has found the right place to be and work. Great! Valerie

  3. Glenn permalink
    July 30, 2014

    Fascinating and another lovely story. Thanks.

  4. July 30, 2014

    A fine story about Lyndie’s grandiose little world!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  5. joan permalink
    July 30, 2014

    I don’t often regret the fact that my children are growing up – I like living with interesting teens – but I do so miss going to see productions at the Little Angel. On one visit we had a tour of the workshop and I can still conjure up that smell of wood and glue. Fantastic place.

  6. Bricklanemafia permalink
    July 30, 2014

    incredible images!

  7. July 30, 2014

    beautiful
    i have fond memories of taking oliver and isabella here many years ago
    i am sure we would love to visit again

  8. Paula permalink
    July 30, 2014

    I have always loved puppets and received a set of hand puppets for my 4th Christmas. What a wonderful story! I can only dream of visiting! Magical. Thank you for bringing it to us.

  9. Roger Tiller permalink
    July 30, 2014

    HI, CANT WAIT TO SEE THIS LOVELY PLACE AND SEE THESE OLD MARIONETTES, I USED TO GO ROUND ALL OVER THE PLACE TOURING WHEN I WAS WORKING WITH THE JOLES PUPPETS OWNED BY MRS J KNIGHT AND HER BROTHER FROM SURREY, NOW LONG GONE, THIS WAS IN THE EARLY FIFTIES, WE USED TO GO ROUND IN A OLD FORD CAR AND TRAILER WITH ALL THE PROPS, I USED TO RIDE PILLION ON THE BROTHERS DOUGLOUS BIKE AS THERE WASN’T ANY ROOM IN THE CAR AS IT WAS FULL OF PUPPET’S WE EVEN DONE A REHEARSAL AT THE BBC LIMEGROVE STUDIOS IN FRONT OF MICHAEL WESTMORE I BELIEVE HE WAS IN CHARGE OF CHILDREN’S TV, IF ANYONE KNOWS DIFFERENT PLEASE LET ME KNOW.
    THEY WHERE FANTASTIC TIMES NEVER FORGET THEM.
    ROGER TILLER FROM MERTON MORDEN.

  10. Pauline Taylor permalink
    July 30, 2014

    Fascinating as someone else has already said, and so worthwhile. There is nothing like the smell of wood and glue, not to mention paints and varnishes, in a workshop. My father and grandfather both had workshops like that. Wonderful!

  11. John Campbell permalink
    July 30, 2014

    Wonderful lady, magical world. Read an interview with her son Joe (also incredibly talented in his own field) where he described his childhood of coming home from school and the whole family would sew costumes together and prepare for the next performance. A slightly eccentric upbringing but how magical at the same time. The Little Angel has brought so much joy to generations of London kids and more importantly fired the imaginations of the next puppeteers, playwrights, authors, artists, and sad old dreamers such as I. Long may they reign. X

  12. July 30, 2014

    Little Angel Theatre gave us our first opportunity to perform overseas. It was wonderful then, in 1989, and it makes me happy to see Lyndie carrying on.
    Valerie Nelson
    Magical Moonshine Theatre

  13. StephenH permalink
    July 30, 2014

    It always surprises me, in a very good way, that, in an age where children grow up with access to some amazing digital entertainment, they can still be delighted with handmade creations of wood and paint. It’s good to know that the imagination is still hale and hearty. Stories like this fill me with pleasure and hope. Thank you.

  14. July 31, 2014

    Lovely to see Sarah’s photos! The Wrights, circa 1973 – and later Barry Smith’s Theatre of Puppets – pulled our family right into this mesmerising world, the power and the magic of which has never left us. (My own passion is for the Javanese wayang golek…)
    Strangely, after seeing the making of War Horse recently, I was on the verge of asking SL if there were no puppeteers working within the East End orbits, so an unexpected delight to have Lyndie Wright suddenly pulled into the fold. So much pleasure the Little Angel and the Wrights gave over the years…

  15. July 31, 2014

    I remember as a child in the late 60,s being taken to the Little Angel Theatre and being in total awe. a lovely article which restores faith in all specialist things done well

  16. Julia Carden permalink
    July 31, 2014

    I had the fortune to work with Lyndie and all the lovely people at The Little Angel. I read this article with a lot of fondness and nostalgia. The people behind the place can never receive enough praise! Thank you for the lovely photos and bringing a tear to my eye!

  17. jeannette permalink
    July 31, 2014

    i hope you will return for photos of her cottage, the exterior of the theater and her cottage, as well as photos of the hidden square and its approach. i am also interested in seeing her carve a whole puppet. please don’t leave this story without filling in the blanks.

  18. jeannette permalink
    July 31, 2014

    also very much interested in a blow by blow of the restoration of the theater, workshop and cottage. and, costumes, who makes those?

  19. July 31, 2014

    Brings back lovely, magical memories of taking my son Joe to puppet shows. What a wonderful article.

  20. July 31, 2014

    I was fortunate to meet the charming Lyndie Wright when on a long string marionette training course at The Little Angel Theatre last year. Wonderful lady, wonderful theatre, and the photos bring back the happiest of memories for me. Long may they both continue to spread the magic of puppetry to the world.

  21. Susan permalink
    July 31, 2014

    Andrew – It’s just lovely to think that people (like yourself) are still able to take a “long string marionette training course”! In this world that’s full of virtual, high-tech things, it’s so heartening to learn traditional artistry forges on.

  22. August 2, 2014

    I was and am still privileged to be working at the Little Angel Theatre. On my first visit way back in 1963, I met Lyndie and John Wright. And soon was working at the Little Angel Theatre. At first making tea, sweeping and bagging the puppets, and helping backstage with the scene changes. If it haven’t been for Lyndie and John, my professional career as a puppeteer would not have happened Thank you Lyndie and The Little Angel Theatre.

  23. August 4, 2014

    As our world of entertainment and socialization continues to become more and more digital a place like this marionette theatre will become more and more important for audiences to connect with hand crafted analog art and theatre. Thank you to the spirit of those that support these dying art forms. It’s rare. It’s a wonderous and joyous experience for the audience and the puppeteers to connect. Brilliant article.

  24. August 6, 2014

    I will so was lucky enough to work at the little angel ,a place of magic …. And may the magic continue for ever and ever………….

  25. Anneli Bell permalink
    August 7, 2014

    I met Lyndie on one of her trips to South Africa to visit her sister Liz (also a very talented artist and inspiring teacher) and her brother-in-law John. I never expected to be able to go backstage and see what lies behind the magic. What a treat.

  26. Cherub permalink
    August 21, 2014

    I was enchanted by marionettes in my childhood and still am in my 50s so this was a lovely story to read.

  27. August 26, 2014

    A magical world that was an important part of my childhood in the ’60s. It is glorious to see that Lyndie Wright is still going strong. May she reign forever!

  28. Caroline Astell-Burt permalink
    January 15, 2017

    I was a student at the Little Angel in the 1980s. It was a wonderful experience. I was given work to do, performed my own work, lived and breathed the Little Angel and learnt everything I know. I still have advice John and Lyndie gave me, fragments of conversations that constantly echo in my mind. Ronnie Le Drew, John Wright and I were on holiday in Thailand once and John would tell us stories of his youth, the beginning of his life in South Africa and how he came into puppetry after being a farmer, a scenic artist and stagemanager for choreographer John Cranko and his life in Hampstead or living cheaply above a bar in Europe making new puppets for the theatre. While at the Little Angel on Saturday nights the Wrights would make food for everyone – I had to go to the wine shop with John to buy Retzina – his favourite at the time. John and Lyndie were the kindest of people, the most generous with their art to a very new puppeteer such as myself. Thank you so much Lyndie.

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