I was lucky enough to visit the recently reopened Natural History Museum on Thursday 20 February for the visit of some prehistoric beings. Erth's Dinosaur Zoo is an Australian puppet-based stage show which is now touring the UK after a spot in the West End, and due to visit the New Theatre in mid-April. You can forget images of Punch, Judy and Basil Brush. This is puppetry on a different scale.
When I arrived, the museum was packed to the rafters (or the gleaming, recently-restored glass roof) with expectant children and toddlers eagerly awaiting the main event. Usually happy to glance over the ever-impressive collection of fossils, today they were reluctant. Dinosaurs were coming. Footsteps at the front entrance. Anticipation and excitement turned to fear as a 7’ tall beast with a thrashing tail made its way through the front entrance. It was an Australovenator, a carnivore that once inhabited Australia 95 million years ago.
The sight was far more impressive than I’d expected. The puppetry is glaringly obvious - it’s meant to be - and they walk and move as if they are truly living things, their eyes blinking and closing as they move in to roar and intimidate. As a supposed adult, I barely noticed the very human legs poking out from the underside. Judging by the wails of crying toddlers, they didn’t either. “Don’t cry, mate, he’s already been fed” barked the attempted reassurance with an Australian twang. I got the distinct feeling that if just one adult had let out a scream of fear, all hell would have broken loose.
The puppet masters were brilliantly adept at confirming this realism. Never out of character (as dinosaur zookeepers), it wasn't a lecture or a Q&A session. Facts and information about the individual dinos were given out as part of the act. "Quick, we've got to move the herbivore away!" shouted one, seemingly herding the smaller creature out as the carnivorous Australovenator entered. Kids who asked to pet them were told "you can try!" as if they could break away from their carer’s control at any moment. I didn't doubt it.
The clumsy exit of Australovenator - its swinging tail narrowly avoided turning some adults’ experience from comedy to concussion - allowed the smaller, snappier critters to roam. Leaellysaura stood at between two and three metres tall according to the tour poster being handed out, so I've got to assume that this particular specimen was a mere baby. The wailing toddlers had forgotten their earlier terror and pawed at her with enthusiasm. There was a chance for children to ask the zookeepers questions and badger their parents into booking tickets for the show.
The New Theatre hosts the Zoo daily at 2pm from Thursday 17th until Saturday 19th of April, with 11am matinees on the Friday and Saturday. If you have a budding palaeontologist in your care, take them if you dare.