A show with a dancing bear might sound barbaric… but relax, this particular bear wants to dance. There it stands at the side of the stage, the broadest of smiles on its big brown head, elegantly shimmying its big brown paws in time to Cajun folk songs. The songs are provided by a trio of musicians, who come from Brighton but tell us they're somehow in Canada, and a travelling poet has also tagged along. Oh – and did I mention that the bear is wearing a cheerful summery dress?
To enjoy Bear North to the full, it's best not to think too hard about any of this. The bear likes to dance; it just does. The musicians want to help; they just do. There's a tenuous story about an artistic retreat and log cabins in the woods, but that's not really important either. Let's just embrace the surrealism and get on with the show.
Because, if you let go and run with it, the show is a rather wonderful one. The musical trio of Roy Hutchins, Sue Bradley and Dr Blue deliver a relaxed, folkish accompaniment, while Hutchins also narrates the offbeat storyline; it's reminiscent, perhaps, of songs and tall tales round a camp-fire. There's easy-going humour, a touch of satire, and an open invitation for the audience to sing along. And the bear? Well, the bear just dances on.
It works, I think, because the set-up's so versatile: the bear's-head costume completely hides the face of the performer inside it, leaving a blank canvas on which we can paint any emotion we choose. When the bear briefly forgets itself, and starts to eye the audience as food, there's comedic menace in its pointy-fanged snarl. When it's happy and dancing, the same fixed expression becomes a toothy grin of joy. When it's sad, it's truly mournful, and we feel the same way too – ready to be comforted, strangely yet wonderfully, by a soft song about apple trees.
Most of the songs, in fact, invoke the natural world in some way, and over time I found my mind was gently carried to a place of freshness and tranquillity. When the singers asked me to breathe the forest air, I really did take lungfuls in. There's poetry too; not too much of it, just enough to add to the rarefied and contemplative feel. The first poem is deliberately underwhelming, but hang in there, because there's better work to come.
Just a couple of times I felt the mood lapsed into self-indulgence – had the feeling that the performers were primarily entertaining themselves. A tiny bit more discipline in the dialogue between numbers would help dispel that effect. One song is improvised from audience suggestions, but at other times the cast called out to each other to supply assorted details; I found that a little confusing, unsure if an improv game was being played on-stage.
My final words of praise, however, must go to the bear. I can't name-check the performer inside the costume without spoiling a surprise, but I can say this show is utterly transformed by their repertoire of dances, and well-judged sense of fun. By the time the hour was up, I'd accepted the bear as a fully-fledged character – a character, in fact, that I was rather fond of. In the end then, the tables were turned: it was me who danced to Bear North's tune.