'It’s quite overwhelming to hear such emotion and nostalgia from people' - Lambert Theatre puppeteer Claire Walsh
When the sad news broke this week about the legendary Lambert Puppet Theatre closing after 46 years, it caused a national outpouring of sadness and nostalgia.
Many people have cherished memories of attending shows at the theatre in Monkstown on school tours while for others seeing the annual Christmas show was a family tradition spanning three or even four generations.
The Lamberts are also fondly remembered as the team behind magical children's programme Wanderly Wagon, which aired on RTE from 1967 to 1982 but was repeated throughout the 80s.
The late Eugene Lambert played O'Brien and was also the puppeteer and ventriloquist for other characters while the other voices were provided by several of the Lambert children. Other memorable characters from the show were Judge, Fortycoats, Mr Crow and the villainous Doctor Astro and Sneaky Snake, both played by the late, legendary Frank Kelly.
The Monkstown Theatre was set up buy Eugene and his wife Mai in the early 70s and quickly became established as the country's leading children's theatre. It was taken over by their son Liam following Eugene's death in 2010 but the ravages of recession and a devastating fire in 2015 have ultimately led to its demise.
Claire Walsh (35) from Leixlip has worked as one of several puppeteers at the theatre for the past five years. While the news this week was not unexpected, she was surprised by her emotions when it broke publicly.
“I was surprised how sad I was, particularly the day the news came out and hearing all the tributes people have paid. The response from the public has been absolutely phenomenal," she tells Independent.ie
"We received so many phone calls, so many emails, messages on Facebook, Twitter, just people thanking us. They all just want to say 'thank you for being part of my childhood'. It’s quite overwhelming to hear such emotion and nostalgia from people.
"I know Liam has gone through so much and it’s a huge support to him and a testament to the work he has done and the family has done, particularly Eugene and his wife Mai, over the years."
Claire is a very popular aunty to two nephews who have come to visit her at the theatre. She also has third, two month old nephew, however, and she says it's sad to think he'll never experience the joy of a show at the theatre.
"It’s really sad actually to think he won’t visit me there. That’s a tough one to think about," she says, adding that there are families who have been attending shows there for generations.
"We’ve had great-grandmothers bringing grannies and granddads and their children and their grandchildren and their great grandchildren," she says. "It’s a Christmas tradition for so many families.
"I remember one mother brought her two children on Mother’s Day and I said, ‘Oh gosh, you’re a divil for punishment, you should be home being served tea!’ And she looked at me and said, ‘This is the best treat for me, seeing the looks on their faces’. It sounds so cheesy but in that moment you’re thinking 'wow, that’s what it means to them'."
Claire also attended shows at the theatre herself as a child. In fact, a Cinderella poster from the 80s which hangs in the theatre box office is the same as one she had on her childhood bedroom wall.
"It's gas having that poster on the wall there that I had above my head in my bedroom as a child!" she laughs.
While the theatre gives adult returnees a healthy dose of nostalgia, so do the shows themselves, which have hardly changed since they were created by Eugene. Parents and grandparents are effectively enjoying the same shows with their children as they enjoyed themselves as children.
"Liam has worked really hard in keeping that alive. We’re just helping in bringing those stories and the way they were told forward," says Claire.
"The funny thing is, watching a lot of the archive videos in the last couple of days we heard Eugene as the Big Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood and I couldn’t get over how much Liam sounded like him, and the way we do it. I couldn’t get over it, it’s remarkable how like Eugene Liam sounds."
Liam is not the only Lambert to pursue a career in puppetry. His sister Miriam runs a company in Kilkenny and his sister Paul is the voice of Bosco, who is gearing up for a nationwide tour. Bosco originated at the Lambert Theatre but went on to enjoy his own TV show on RTE and has been touring and making appearances ever since.
"I'm a Bosco baby, without a doubt!" laughs Claire. "Getting to meet Paula and Bosco was a bit of a dream come true for me. I don’t think she has worked [in the theatre] in a long time but I have met her and she’s lovely. I have also met Bosco, more importantly! It’s really weird when Bosco says your name and you just pass out in a fangirl moment!"
Claire's path to puppetry came about following a conversation with another puppeteer. She had trained as an actor and did a masters in movement in London and works as a voice coach and singing and drama teacher in Dublin. After a class one morning she started talking to a woman who was working as a puppeteer.
"When you tell people you work as a puppeteer you always get this interested response so I was asking her all about it and that was the end of the conversation. Two years later she rang me asking would I be interested in coming to help out on a show and I jumped at the opportunity."
Her first show was five years ago this week. Unfortunately, she arrived as the recession began to take a toll on the theatre.
"As Liam said on radio this week, the length of the recession had an effect on us. Children's theatre feels like such a luxury, particularly for families with young children," she says. "We lost out hugely. They’re our main demographic. Children’s theatre isn’t going to be high on the agenda [when you are struggling financially as a family]."
Perhaps the theatre would have survived were it not for a devastating fire which destroyed the theatre's museum and 300 puppets.
Claire had been away when it happened but rushed from the airport to the theatre on her return.
"I walked through what used to be the museum upstairs and it was really, really difficult. Puppets that would have been - I don’t know how old - from touring puppetry companies were just completely ashen, covered in ash. The museum upstairs was destroyed, absolutely destroyed. Some of my favourite puppets in the theatre were ruined."
Losing the puppets in particular was devastating as it is not simply a case of ordering new ones as hours of time and work goes into building each puppet from scratch.
"That had a huge effect on business and our ability to continue as a business," reveals Claire.
"All those shows has to be rebuilt. We were due to open Sleeping Beauty that September and we lost all those puppets. We had to scramble to put on a new show. Christmas was our biggest season and we lost all the puppets for that show, Aladdin, as well. It was a bigger show and it was a mad scramble to rebuild and remake all those."
While some have been hoping for a last minute Cavalry arrival to prevent the sale of the theatre, Claire says she does not see "any going back from here".
"It definitely was a tough decision to make and I know Liam went through a great deal to avoid it," she says. "He’s spent the last ten years trying to avoid it."
However, the theatre sale does not mean that the beloved puppets will be packed up never to perform again. Liam plans for the company to return to its roots as a touring company.
"It wasn’t an easy decision, but he does have great hopes and plans for the company to continue and when we chatted bout it before the news went out it was actually really nice to hear his ideas and the fact he will have more time and resources to put into making new shows and the creative process and the art of puppetry," says Claire.
"It was really reassuring to hear, especially as a puppeteer. And it’s exciting. The majority of the resources currently are going into maintaining the building in Monkstown."
Claire hopes to tour with Liam and fellow puppeteers Laura and Joshua as much as possible, but is also setting up a children's choir, the Small Notes Choir, which will initially rehearse at the Lambert Puppet Theatre.
"It's hard to think about life after Lamberts but it's a must," she says.
For more information on the Lambert Puppet Theatre check out https://lambertpuppettheatre.ie/ Anyone interested in the choir can contact Claire on email@example.com.