Adventure review: Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake, Polka Theatre, London

Published by The Stage, 9 April 2018. Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake is playing at the Polka Theatre, London, until 13 May 2018. The show is for children aged 4+. (It’s worth pointing out though that I took the baby girl (aged 19 months) and another toddler buddy (aged 22 months) along with me to a performance open to younger siblings and both of them were totally absorbed throughout.) 

A man stares, amazed at a huge chocolate cake
Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake at the Polka Theatre, London © Ellie Kurttz

Based on a poem by the former Children’s Laureate, this diverting show from Polka Theatre artistic director Peter Glanville and singer-songwriter Barb Jungr tells the story of Michael, a little boy whose passion for chocolate cake threatens to ruin his brother’s birthday.

By blending the everyday – household routines and the journey to school – with flights of fancy – an extremely jolly Bake Off prize-giving and monsters at bath time – Glanville and Jungr create a theatrical environment that is at once familiar and fantastical to this audience of children aged four and up.

Witty writing and hummable tunes power the show along, and even though we (the adults, and probably a lot of the kids too) know exactly what’s going to happen from the word go, the denouement of Michael waking up in the middle of the night to eat an entire chocolate cake is still genuinely exciting.

Mark Houston as Michael, Todd Heppenstall as his older brother Joe and Aminita Francis as their mum are an effortlessly likeable trio, and some effective doubling swells the dramatis personae to six. Not all the music and singing is live, but there’s enough to give the piece a vibrant feel, and Jungr gives Houston, Heppenstall and Francis some lovely harmonies.

Verity Quinn’s modular set is entertaining in itself, folding and unfolding ingeniously to evoke different parts of Michael’s world, and quirky projections from Will and Joe provide a dollop of surreal humour. Lighting designer Dan Saggars really ramps up the tension when it comes to cake-eating time, making the eponymous dessert the real star of the show.

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Adventure review: Dear Zoo, Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Published by The Stage, 21 March 2017. Dear Zoo is touring the UK until 1 June 2018. The show is for children aged two to six. 

The cast of Dear Zoo on the set, two actors dressed as children, one actor dressed as a zookeeper
Molly Waters, Aaron Spendelow and Harrison Spiers on the set of Dear Zoo

If you have a child, you’ll have read Dear Zoo – many, many times probably. First published in 1982, this simple story of a child writing to the zoo for a pet and being sent all manner of inappropriate animals, has sold over eight million copies worldwide.

It’s a surprise therefore, given the bankability of such an endeavour, that this is the first time it’s ever been staged.

The set and costumes, by Ian Westbrook and Anne Hewitt respectively, are lifted straight out of the book, and while such a tactic succeeds in creating a familiar environment for young audiences, it’s disappointing that director Michael Gattrell has played it so safe.

The script, written by Dear Zoo’s original writer and illustrator Rod Campbell, is also faithful to the book, filling out its plot with lazily written songs for the animals and inane chitchat by its three human characters. There’s not a moment of drama to be had.

Aaron Spendelow, as Sam the Zoo Keeper, Harrison Spiers as Ben, the boy who wants a pet, and Sally, his friend, are engaging enough to get the children out of their seats for a few fun moments of gentle audience interaction, but all three performances are irritatingly one note.

It’s not their fault – Gattrell, who specialises in directing pantomimes, seems to be of the opinion that children must be talked to very loudly and very shrilly if they’re to understand anything that’s going on. Emma Longthorne, voicing the various animals, offers some much needed relief on this front.

Don’t get me wrong: lots of the two-to-six-year-olds in the audience enjoyed the silliness of this production. It’s just a shame that it has so little else going for it. Young audiences deserve better.

An actor dressed as a monkey, an actor dressed as a zookeeper and two actors dressed as children on the set of theatre show Dear Zoo
Emma Longthorne, Aaron Spendelow and Harrison Spiers and Molly Waters on the set of Dear Zoo

Adventure review: Family Sounds, Wigmore Hall, London

Small children and adults gathered around a suitcase listen to a cello
The baby girl at Family Sounds at the Wigmore Hall

The Family Sounds workshop has already begun by the time the baby girl and I arrive (late) at the Wigmore Hall, and the foyer is full of enticing sounds: lilting song, drum beats emanating from a suitcase, sliding notes from a violin, a flute and a cello. Part of the extensive programme of family events at the hall, the workshop is aimed at under-5s.

The baby girl gets a name badge, we draw close to the magic suitcase and her name is pulled into the song. Workshop leader Esther Sheridan explains that we’ll be going on a journey together, collecting sounds in the suitcase to create a new piece of music. She then leads us all downstairs to the hall’s Bechstein Room, where the floor is littered with percussion instruments waiting for players.

The kids get stuck in with the shakers while the musicians improvise around a piece specially written by the Wigmore’s composer-in-residence Helen Grime. It’s wonderful to be able to listen to multi-instrumental music in the round, and Sheridan and the other workshop leaders hit the right balance in terms of atmosphere as they lead musicians and children into silence and sound and back again. The mood is informal, so everyone feels relaxed, but it’s not a free-for-all – we know where our focus is expected to be.

The next phase of the workshop, in which the group moves to different areas in the room to experiment with sounds of the forest, city and space, is less successful. The music is excellent – the musicians playing in unusual ways to create otherworldly and unexpected noises – but the interactive element feels undercooked. While the older and more independent children have a ball suggesting sounds to take with us on our journey, the little ones are sometimes left behind. As a result, the session begins to drag – two hours is a long time to ask babies and toddlers to pay attention.

That said, when the musicians and workshop leaders are engaging with the children one-on-one (shout out to Gawain Hewitt and his musical plant), and Grime’s evocative music is filling the space, this workshop is a delight. Venues like this one can feel rather forbidding; by throwing open the doors to families, the Wigmore Hall is doing important work in democratising classical music and developing the audiences of the future. It’s good to see.

Adventure review: Hush-A-Bye, Artsdepot, London

Published by The Stage, 18 December 2017. Hush-A-Bye runs at Artsdepot until 31 December, and will be touring in the new year. The show is for children aged three to five. 

Every aspect of the theatre experience has been carefully considered in Hush-A-Bye, a gently interactive show for children aged three to five (there’s a relaxed version too, and one for babies and toddlers) from veteran company Oily Cart. In director Anna Newell’s capable hands, this ‘woodland wonderland’ is not just a place of fun but of learning and comfort too.

Sitting at a sort of bar, looking into Jens Cole’s bright treetop set, their grownups behind them, the children are each invited to build a nest for some hatching baby birds. It’s a sensory activity, and a fun one at that, but it’s also a neat way of getting the children comfortable in the space and invested in the story. The pace here, as throughout, is leisurely enough that no one is left behind, and there’s plenty of time for the cast to engage with their young patrons one-on-one.

Cole’s design really shines as writer and Oily Cart artistic director Tim Webb’s simple plot – the arrival of some unexpected weather and an even more unexpected visitor – takes off, and lighting designer Jack Knowles deserves a particular nod for the magical moment when the rain starts to fall.

Katherine Grey and Griff Fender as Grandma and Grandpa Bird are reassuringly familiar and grandparental, despite their colourful birdy getups, while participatory stage manager Deanne Jones as Hoppity is childlike enough to identify with. Kadialy Kouyate’s beautiful kora playing and singing provides atmospheric underscoring before bursting into life for several fun song and dance numbers. I didn’t want any of it to end.

Four performers in bright bird costumes, the cast of Oily Cart show Hush-A-Bye, stand in front of a background painted with leaves
Hush-A-Bye by Oily Cart © Suzi Corker

Adventure review: The Ramshackle House, Stratford Circus, London

Published by The Stage, 7 December 2017. The Ramshackle House runs at Stratford Circus until 24 December. The show is for children aged 3 and up and their families.

Telling a story through contemporary circus is a feat attempted by many, but achieved by regrettably few. With The Ramshackle House, Upswing Theatre make it look easy, painting a picture of family life that is emotionally resonant yet sufficiently silly to hold the attention of younger audience members.

Delia Ceruti and Renato Dias begin the show performing alone – she, defying gravity on a tangle of ropes; he, clowning around on the perilously sloping roof of the eponymous abode. They soon come together, to tumble, balance and twist their way into love. It’s not long before a child arrives in their lives, a suitably excitable Matthew Smith, making their family complete.

The circus itself, devised by the company and directed by Upswing artistic director Vicki Amedume, is unshowy, made to serve the narrative thrust of the show, rather than the other way around. Keeping things contained in this way means that there’s room for the handful of moments of proper spectacle to really breathe, as when Dias and Ceruti teeter, impossibly, on a plank of wood balanced on the rung of a ladder.

An accomplished original score by James Atherton – at times plaintive, at times funky – keeps the show motoring along, while Daniella Beattie’s lighting design bathes Becky Minto’s set in a series of beautiful coloured glows, eliciting oohs and aahs at each scene change.

There’s a magic to the fact that all this takes place up on the roof, a harvest moon shining overhead. It’s like normal life – laundry, chairs, books and lampshades all make an appearance – but transported into a different dimension, one where disagreements are solved with handstands and parents can be carried by their children.

4 stars

A man and a woman balance on a plank suspended through a ladder, in front of a theatre set of a moon.
Delia Ceruti and Renato Dias in The Ramshackle House © Mark Robson

 

Adventure review: Ugly Duckling, The Albany, London

Published by The Stage, 6 December 2017. Ugly Duckling runs at The Albany until 31 December, and continues its UK tour in January. The show is for children aged 3 and up and their families.

Tutti Frutti Productions begins its adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a baby bird hatched into the wrong nest using puppetry, then switching into live action as the tale takes off.

It’s a good call on Tutti Frutti artistic director Wendy Harris’s part, enabling the company to set the scene for a young audience before adopting a less literal dressing-up box aesthetic that makes for a very stylish piece of children’s theatre.

Catherine Chapman’s inventive design uses sunglasses to suggest beaks, woolly jumpers as feathers, and paper flags to stand in for snow, leaving plenty of room for Mike Redley’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s score to help conjure up the urban park where our story takes place.

Danny Childs does an excellent line in gangly awkwardness as the Ugly Duckling, wide-eyed in his dealings with Daniel Naddafy’s Fluffy, the mean older brother who nudges him from the nest.

Also playing some of the characters that Ugly encounters in the wilds of the park gives Naddafy a chance to have fun with different accents and physicalities. Maeve Leahy, meanwhile, keeps the show grounded with her tender portrayal of the mother duck, and reveals a fine singing voice too – it’s a shame that after her sweet song there’s little live music to be heard, replaced by recorded music that jars in both its tone and volume.

Emma Reeves’s script steers clear of excessive tweeness. The message of ‘it’s what you do that matters, not what you look like’ is hardly revelatory but, buffered by a lot of genuinely funny physical comedy and a surprisingly moving piece of dance (props to movement director Holly Irving), Tutti Frutti more than gets away with it.

Two actors jump into the air
Daniel Naddafy as Goose and Danny Child as Ugly Duckling in The Ugly Duckling at The Albany © Brian Slater

Adventure review: Rave-A-Roo, Ministry of Sound

The first time I went to the Ministry of Sound – at the tender age of 16 – someone threw up on my shoes in the queue. On this most recent visit, to check out indoor family festival Rave-A-Roo, the worst that happened was a leaky nappy. I think you could call that progress.

Launched in early 2016, Rave-A-Roo is a brilliant concept: an opportunity for children to dance, play and generally run wild in an environment so stimulating that it takes them all weekend to wind down again, while their parents drink overpriced prosecco and indulge in nostalgia for their clubbing days.

The baby girl isn’t really Rave-A-Roo’s target audience, but babies are welcome, and there are enough exciting things to look at (giant disco ball, anyone?) and different places to sit to make this little adventure worth the trouble.

Clouds of bubbles waft over us as I park the pushchair in an undercover area in the venue’s courtyard, a suitably enthusiastic DJ Cuddles (I’m desperate to know if he uses this stage name for adult gigs too) playing pop tunes in front of tables covered with jewellery-making paraphernalia.

Worried about the volume levels, I bring the baby girl’s ear defenders, but they end up staying in my bag. The main room – headlined by none other than everyone’s favourite ovine film star Shaun the Sheep – would be too loud to go without ear protection for longer than a few minutes, but the baby girl isn’t interested in being in there anyway. Crawling is all she wants to do right now, and the main room isn’t the place for it, so despite the temptation of a flock of inflatable ducks, we leave it to the bigger kids.

We spend most of our time in the Funky Soft Play Room, carving out a corner for ourselves in the midst of dozens of wired toddlers. The soft play isn’t quite as soft as it should be – the only cushioning on the floor of the inflatable that holds the soft play equipment is a few rag rugs – and there’s no one in authority keeping the rowdier children from going rogue. The small pile of baby toys in the corner is welcome, but positioned in such a way that it feels like we’re in constant danger of being stepped on.

The other place we hang out is Chill-A-Roo, aka the Ministry’s VIP area, which overlooks the main bar on one side and the biggest club room on the other. No concessions to the family crowd here apart from a barista serving proper coffees, but the baby girl is happy enough sitting on a banquette and hitting her cup against the table while I drink a hot chocolate.

At £12.10 for early bird tickets (going up to an eye-watering £25 on the door) for adults and children over the age of 18 months, Rave-A-Roo isn’t cheap, but the super friendly vibe, plus nice touches like nappy change supplies in the loos, swings it for me. The baby girl will be too little to really appreciate it for a while yet, but if Rave-A-Roo is still running in two or three years’ time, you can find us in da club.

A baby holds a ball in amongst some soft play equipment.
The baby girl larging it in the Funky Soft Play Room at Rave-A-Roo at Ministry of Sound.