From egg boxes to West End acclaim for puppetry aficionado Toby Olie

Puppetry aficionado Toby Olie has come a long way since cutting out dinosaur puppets from egg boxes in a Northumberland classroom

The latest London production Toby Olie, from Hexham, inset has been working on
The latest London production Toby Olie, from Hexham, inset has been working on

Puppetry aficionado Toby Olie has come a long way since cutting out dinosaur puppets from egg boxes in a Northumberland classroom.

The 28-year-old, from Hexham, is now hot property on the world’s puppetry stage after directing some of the West End’s most acclaimed productions and taking them overseas.

The self-confessed “puppetry geek” is perhaps best known for his work as puppetry director of the London West End smash hit, War Horse.

After years spent as an aspiring performer at Hexham’s Queen Elizabeth High School, Toby took up his place on the UK’s first degree in puppet theatre at London’s Central School of Speech & Drama, with no idea where it might take him.

After graduating with first class honours in 2006, Toby landed the coveted part of operating leading horse Joey for three years when War Horse was at the National Theatre on the banks of the Thames.

In 2009 he was externally placed as the head of fellow cavalry horse Topthorn when the play moved to The New London Theatre, in Drury Lane.

Making his mark as one of War Horse’s leading puppeteers, Toby was asked to become associate puppetry director of the award-winning West End show. The story then reached dizzy heights in 2011 when Stephen Spielberg turned it into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Now Toby has earned a place as one of the most talented puppetry professionals on the planet.

So how did a student fresh out of drama school get to play a leading role in his first major performance?

He said: “In the second year of my puppetry degree, my project mentor, Murray Miller, had been involved with War Horse for two years.”

“He was responsible for finding people to take part in puppet workshops. He got me an audition, following which I was asked to go to an X Factor-style boot camp that prepared me for the part of Joey, which I was then asked to play.”

The last seven years has seen Toby involved in other projects, including designing an 18-foot Cheshire Cat for the Royal Ballet’s production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

He landed the job designing and making puppets for Disney’s stage production of The Little Mermaid, which ran in Holland, Russia and Japan.

And he was asked to make the puppet dog Sammy for Goodnight Mr Tom, which toured the UK. The sheepdog, according to many critics, outplayed its fellow actors.

Now, Toby is lapping up critical acclaim for a show that includes a life-sized puppet elephant.

The Elephantom, which is currently running at the National Theatre’s Shed, in London, is co-directed by Toby and his War Horse co-star Finn Caldwell.

The production is about a mischievous elephantom which haunts a little girl in an increasingly calamitous fashion.

Soon elephants are floating above - and bumping into - a delighted audience, impersonating Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and doing the conga.

“The show has no dialogue, so the entire narrative is told through movement and visuals,” said Toby. “So, given the central character is played by a puppet, this puts a lot of onus on the quality and depth of the manipulation.

“Finn and I were the puppetry directing team for a number of years on War Horse in the West End, so the technique of one of us standing back to observe while the other gets stuck in on the details has evolved from that. With such sophisticated technology so readily available to us in our daily lives, there is a hunger for and celebration of the low-tech, more handcrafted techniques in visual art forms, and puppetry is a fine example of this.”

This year saw Toby collaborate with American singer Tori Amos on a musical called The Light Princess, which has already won six stage awards since hitting London’s National Theatre.

Toby, who was a firm favourite in various high school youth theatre productions, discovered his love of puppetry when he was a pupil at Hexham’s Sele First School.

He said: “I remember the school had an egg box with a cut-out dinosaur puppet on the front, which I went mad for. I also loved Sesame Street when I was younger and dinosaur toys.

“For me, it’s a mixture of making and performing. I’m an actor as well as being arty, so I enjoy both aspects of puppetry. I’m lucky I’ve had the opportunity to perform as well as design on some major productions.

“My making skills, I’m afraid, are all down to Blue Peter!”

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