Reviewed by Lewis Cuthbert
Review Date: 05/01/15

The Snow Bear

from Hearthside Tales

23rd December 2014 @ St. Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead

The weather outside may have been frightful this Christmas, but Hearthside Tales provided a truly delightful show for young children with their tale of the Snow Bear, King of the Great North Star; an enchanting mix of songs, games and puppetry that definitely warmed the cockles.

Hearthside Tales are master storyteller Chris Bostock and musical marvel Ken Patterson, who have taken a classic Norwegian folk tale and adapted it for a modern young audience. Not that the tale itself (The Cat on the Dovrefjell) needs much in the way of alteration but the duo have expanded and modernised it just enough so that it retains all the original fun and mischief but also becomes something much more meaningful.

The original tale is about a husband and wife whose house is besieged by playful goblins once every year. Their luck changes when a traveller, who has been called upon to deliver a polar bear, stops by and frightens off the sprites with his large furry travel companion. Chris and Ken have taken the idea of transporting the bear as the basis of their story; with their main character Halvor asked by the King of Norway to deliver this polar present to the King of Sweden, thus meeting all kinds of amusing characters along the way.

One such character is Tomtem the benevolent spirit in the form of an old man, a Pinocchio style puppet by Alison McGowan, in charge of taking care of all the animals that live in the countryside. Again from Norwegian folklore. This led to a charming game involving animal noises and putting each one safely to bed. The lively interjections of music, be they on cello or trombone or guitar, kept the audience’s spirits up and maintained the high energy level necessary for this sort of show.

In fact, barely a moment went by that didn’t grab your interest. From the awe-inspiring array of puppetry – all varieties you could think of, including shadow and Punch & Judy style in the miniature theatre created by Jon Codd – to the simple but resplendent multi-purpose set designed by Alison Ashton, which made room for some very clever transitions between scenes.

You’ll notice I used the word ‘meaningful’ earlier when describing this new version of the traditional folk tale. Well, like all good stories it has a moral and the rather modern moral that has been supplanted here regards animal cruelty and their rights. Nothing upsetting is portrayed but the audience are told how ‘sad’ the bear is to be kept in captivity and Halvor allows the children to suggest what could be done to help. ‘Let him go home!’ a little boy shouts out. ‘But I’ve just given him to the King,’ Halvor replies, ‘I think you’ll have to talk to him.’ And so begins a wonderful section in which the children are allowed to argue the point with the monarch. They change his mind, but not so easily. This lovely scene allows the children to practice talking to adults and getting their point across in a grown-up manner, as well as showing that they have the right to talk to anyone (even a King!) if they feel they have an argument to make.

The last aspect to mention is the venue, St Mary’s Heritage Centre on this occasion, as Hearthside Tales make a point of playing in smaller community venues so as to allow everyone to see a good show now and again. A noble effort, and very good show it is too. In terms of family entertainment, whatever they choose to do next will come highly recommended.