The Bear Space is a pleasingly enigmatic affair – and it behoves me to write a similarly enigmatic review. A lot of its delight lies in the surprises; surprises it would, therefore, be criminal to spoil. But I can say that the show is built around bear-baiting, the heartless mediaeval “sport” which pitted a single chained bear against a pack of dogs trained to fight. I can say that it features brutal puppet hounds – which snarl and bite at a huge, loveably vulnerable, puppet bear. And I can also say that it’s far more funny and charming than that blunt description makes it sound.
You have to wait a fair while to see those puppets, because the first part of the show is an introduction set in the present day. And it’s in this scene that some of the most memorable theatrical magic happens; we’re shown a procession of objects, all purportedly belonging to a mysterious society whose aim is to restore the “elegant and noble art” of the bear-pit. A very clever piece of audience interaction serves to focus your attention on these artefacts, and stresses their macabre desirability as relics of a bygone age. There’s an irresistible cuteness to some of the objects themselves, and together they tell an entertaining but horrific back-story, about a real-world London bear garden and the cruelty practiced therein.
It’s master of ceremonies Ulysses Black who makes this first part of the show sparkle, humorously bigging up the items he’s displaying while glossing over their self-evident weaknesses. As time goes by, though, we see another side to his character; for him, these are not just historic artefacts, but subjects of almost religious adoration. And soon, in an elegant visual sequence, he takes us back in time – to hear a hauntingly cynical monologue from a sixteenth-century bear owner, and finally to witness the reality of the “sport”, courtesy of puppeteer Annie Brooks.
FoulPlay Productions’ previous Brighton Fringe show was essentially an outdoor game, and that experience building interactive entertainment is evident here as well. They excel at giving the audience creative things to do; one necessary on-stage hiatus was deftly covered up by having Black reappear as a barker, hustling us to place bets on either the dogs or the bear. The opening scene, similarly, is magnificently conceived, building a sense of fun and friendly competition while cleverly drawing attention to the emerging storyline.
Where they’re less successful, though, is in putting forward a thesis or making a point, other than the obvious one that bear-baiting was cruel. Jack Stigner’s mid-show soliloquy hints at something interesting – something to do with the way that Tudor-era theatre was inextricably linked to the bear-pits – but that promising thought doesn’t go all that far. Meanwhile, although it’s true that they induce us to cheer at something we ought to find grotesque, these are just puppets and this is just a play. If the idea is to confront us with our own baseness, then a subtler approach could have challenged me a whole lot more.
As a complete unit then, The Bear Space doesn’t quite hang together; there isn’t enough of a through-line to link the show’s distinct parts. Never mind though. Taken individually, those parts are more than enough to build a convincing hour of theatre, which delivers both finely-crafted fun and an emotional sucker-punch at the end. And despite (or maybe because of) its hideous subject matter, this is a witty and warmly humorous show; and so, if you enjoy the unconventional, it’s a bear necessity for you.