See creatures come to life in West End puppet shows

Find out which shows are brought to life through the magic of puppetry with these imaginative stage adaptations, and book your tickets now.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

One of the most talked-about wins at the 2022 Olivier Awards came in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category, with the prize going to the seven actors who play the Tiger in Life of Pi. It’s testament to how vital puppetry has become to British theatre productions; you certainly couldn’t imagine the incredible Life of Pi working without it.

Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell also won the award for Best Set Design, alongside Tim Hatley, for their astonishing work on the Life of Pi puppets – you can read more about that in our interview with them here. As Finn points out, one of the joys of using puppetry in theatre is that the audience invests in the characters because they’re part of the process of bringing them to life with their imagination.

You can see that magic in a number of fantastic West End plays and musicals, with puppets used to conjure up everything from the animals of the African Pride Lands to a talking snowman who likes warm hugs. It’s a special treat for audience members of all ages, taking us back to the roots of theatrical storytelling.

So, check out our guide to the best London shows with puppets that you can book for now, and plan your West End outing.

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The Lion King

Julie Taymor’s award-winning production is the gold standard of screen-to-stage transfers. In adapting Disney’s beloved animated movie, she used a thoroughly theatrical toolbox rather than relying on screen projections – in particular, assembling the incredible puppets with specialist Michael Curry.

The Lion King has everything from hand puppets and rod puppets to shadow and full-body puppets (more than 230 in total) plus the striking masks. Some puppets take extra skills to operate, like the vertiginous giraffes which require their puppeteers to walk on stilts. It’s a wonderful way to introduce young audiences to theatre, and a clever creative solution to bringing the African Pride Lands to a West End stage.

Add in those brilliantly catchy songs from Elton John and Tim Rice, like “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” plus a thrilling story as young Simba learns to embrace his destiny, and this is puppet-filled production is a delight for the whole family.

Book The Lion King tickets on London Theatre.

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Frozen

Bringing the kingdom of Arendelle to stage was another exciting creative challenge. Director Michael Grandage worked with designer Christopher Oram and puppet designer Michael Curry on crafting some of Frozen’s much-loved characters, like Sven and Olaf. Sven is a costume puppet, meaning you can’t see the performer inside it, whereas Olaf’s puppeteer is visible to the audience.

In fact, Sven initially was going to be cut from the musical, until the team figured out how to integrate this larger-than-life reindeer (literally – puppet Sven is eight and a half feet long) into the show. Thank goodness they did: devotees of the Disney movie would be heartbroken if he wasn’t there.

The same, of course, applies to the scene-stealing snowman Olaf. He is a Japanese bunraku-style puppet, connected to the performer so that they move as one. Olaf even has magnets in his hands so he can pick things up during the show. It’s a key part of this gorgeous production, which faithfully reproduces the story of sisters Anna and Elsa, along with exciting new songs and elements just for the stage show.

Book Frozen tickets on London Theatre.

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My Neighbour Totoro

When talking about otherworldly characters being bought to life with puppetry, it would be amiss not to praise My Neighbour Totoro. Puppet designer and director Basil Twist was challenged with emulating the 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film, and his efforts paid off. It won 6 Olivier Awards after it's first run, and is due to begin again in November 2023.

Twist worked with Mervyn Millar’s Significant Object and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to turn the prototypes he created in LA and New York, into the magical, mystical creatures you see in the film. He spoke with us about creative process behind designing Toroto- his interview can be read here.

My Neighbour Toroto utilises magnificent puppetry to create the world sisters Mei and Satsuki find on their doorstep. By using a huge variety of materials, techniques, and structures, this play offers a huge array of spellbinding puppets that have all been handmade by a huge world-renowned creative team.

Book My Neighbour Totoro tickets on London Theatre.

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