“In the lands of the North where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fire and they tell a tale…”
Peter Firmin looked at the 12th-century Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum, and saw Nogs: men from the Northlands, ruled over by a wise, kind King. Their sharply defined features, beards and pointed helmets seemed to lend themselves to stop motion animation, while the more expressive detailing – such as the Berserker biting his battle shield – implied a dash of whimsically comic potential. The resulting television series, which Firmin produced with Oliver Postgate (of Bagpuss fame among other iconic programmes), became a classic children’s TV treat. The Viking Nogs are both gruff and gentle men: they growl and snarl like warriors, but also worry about warm socks, the weather, and what to say to a girl the first time you meet her – these Norsemen are often to be found helping each other cope with life’s challenges. Above all, the Nogs always make time for tea of the most lavish kind: hot buttered toast, Nogberry jam, scones and all, even mid-voyage when necessary.
The Nogs’ adventures are retold here in a beautiful touring production of Noggin the Nog which melds together puppetry, projections and music with a deliciously low-tech feel: our Vikings, fierce, yet exquisitely polite, puff bellows to blow a projection onto a stretched reindeer hide, where original animations by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate support the flowing stage action, illustrated further by sensitively coordinated puppets made by Caroline Bowman and Ruth Herbert, Peter Firmin’s granddaughter. A pedal-powered harmonium, a mandolin and a variety of horns, as well as strong part-singing, give us plenty of live music on stage, all played by the four skilled actors who portray our key characters (alongside multiple supporting roles). Harry Emerson is a charismatic, appealing Noggin the Nog, leading his band of Viking marauders with humility and charm. Anthony Gleave is gloriously, unrepentantly evil in the role of Noggin’s dastardly uncle, Nogbad the Bad, with his cloak bursting brilliantly with puppet crows, Nogbad’s spies and henchmen (one of whom insists he’s actually a raven). Clive Holland brings pathos as well as sweetness to Thor Nogson, Noggin’s great friend and companion at arms who is never quite as vicious as he pretends. Kevin James shows exceptional skill as he animates and voices Graculus, a speaking bird, and the most dramatic puppet of all, Grolliffe the mighty ice dragon, whose stage entrance is a moment of pure theatre magic.
Director John Wright creates a dynamic, family-friendly show which faultlessly holds the attention of both parents and children, its tension and excitement seasoned with humour which often reaches through the fourth wall for a little gentle audience participation. Puppets and instruments join the action seamlessly, magically telescoping the storytelling scale, and the Sagas seem to come alive on many levels, glowing with sincerity and comic polish. Although narrative focus in the second half can go a little astray at times as the Nogs’ adventures get wilder, the company’s general poise never falters.
We follow Noggin as he makes his mark as a young king of the Nogs in the wake of the death of his father, the gentle, anxious King Cnut. Noggin journeys across icy wastes to win his Eskimo bride Nooka, having fallen in love with her portrait engraved on a dagger made (like the Lewis Chessmen themselves) of walrus ivory. Thankfully Nooka, also, likes tea and hot buttered toast: marital happiness is instantaneous. Noggin next faces a thrilling dramatic encounter with Grolliffe, the ice dragon, when he responds to a distress call from the proud, warlike Little People of the Hot Water Valley; like the Nogs, Grolliffe turns out to be far more charming than his threatening outward appearance might first indicate. The attention to detail of this production, from its clever and versatile stagecraft to its friendly, direct approach to the audience – even its generous programme, packed with Nog-inspired games and activities for children and parents alike – makes it a genuinely special family outing, with no need for prior knowledge of Noggin and his world; just a hunger for adventure (and toast).