Today is Sophie’s 16th birthday, so her mother is baking a cake. As Danyah Miller (who co-wrote the show with John Miller) mixes together the ingredients to bake a real-life cake before our very eyes, she’s reminded of a story she used to tell Sophie when she was little: about a family of mice celebrating a birthday of their own.
Kika’s Birthday is charming in places, and Miller is a very likeable performer, but the show lacks dramatic oomph, more story session than theatrical performance. Designer Alison Alexander’s menagerie of everyday objects transformed into animals, though often ingenious, are not used to their full potential. There’s very little attempt to bring these creatures to life in director Samantha Lane’s largely static staging – Miller’s own physicality is dynamic (credit to movement director Jennifer Jackson) but when it comes to the puppetry, she’s really just creating a series of tableaux and the story never really takes hold as a result.
Chris McDonnell’s lighting design is effective in switching between the cake-baking narrative and the story it frames, but the other signifier – a change from prose to rhyming verse and back again – feels rather twee.
We’re offered no sense of the world inhabited by the mice, either via the design, which doesn’t shift from the kitchen, or the Millers’ script, which is heavy on plot and light on atmosphere. Not enough heed has been paid to character either – it’s hard to care about protagonists that barely speak or move, even if they are cute puppet mice.
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.
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.
Traveling with a baby might stop you from doing some of the things you used to do on vacation — bar-hopping and fine dining, for example, are trickier with a small person underfoot. That doesn’t mean you have to miss out on all the fun, though. London is well stocked with cultural experiences specifically designed with little ones in mind. Here are our favorites.
Theater Baby-friendly performances are a new thing on London stages, but it’s a trend that’s gathering momentum, with more and more venues offering one-off showings.
As with movie theaters, plays aren’t necessarily selected with underage audiences in mind, but changes are usually made to ensure that sound and lighting effects and actors’ delivery won’t overwhelm those all-important theatergoers of tomorrow.
Check with theaters such as Park Theatre in Finsbury Park and the Young Vic in Waterloo for specific parent-and-baby shows, and keep your eyes peeled for “relaxed” performances, which are aimed towards anyone who would benefit from a more informal environment, including kiddos.
Classical concerts Acclaimed pianist Miaomiao Yu founded the classical concert series Bach to Baby after becoming frustrated by the lack of opportunities out there for moms and dads wanting to introduce their kids to high-quality musical performances. The concerts present professional musicians performing in welcoming, family-friendly venues across London and South East England.
An informal atmosphere means that children are free to express themselves during the concerts while, at the same time, learning from their parents (who are asked to refrain from talking) about the behavior expected from them once they’re a bit bigger. Concerts take place in locations like beautiful historic churches and art galleries, making this a lovely way to discover some of the capital’s hidden gems.
Art museums You’d be hard pressed to find an art museum in London unwilling to admit a baby, but gallery-hopping with an infant can be a nerve-wracking experience all the same. Worrying about your child disturbing others and having concerns over the presence of diaper-changing facilities or places to breastfeed comfortably is no way to spend the day.
Fortunately, the Whitechapel Gallery has thought of everything, offering curator-led tours of its exhibitions for infants and their escorts that take place in the morning before the museum’s regular opening. At the end of the tour, gratis refreshments are available in the museum’s education space, with toys and playmats available to mini visitors needing to blow off steam.
Movies Many London movie theaters offer weekly parent-and-baby screenings, so there’s no reason to miss out on the latest releases, whether you’re into blockbusters or art-house flicks. Screenings tend to take place in the late morning and, with so many cinemas now serving excellent coffee and snacks, a visit to the movies feels like a real daytime indulgence.
Everyman Cinemas — where you’ll find comfortable sofas as well as more traditional seats — even throws in a complimentary hot drink and cake with every ticket.
Movies on offer are programmed with parents rather than babies in mind, but the atmosphere is sure to keep the small ones comfortable. Most cinemas turn the volume down a bit and leave the light levels in the auditorium higher than usual to ensure that younger moviegoers — and therefore their parents — have the best experience possible.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Trying to get a baby to sleep can be tedious at the best of times. Throw in an unfamiliar location, early starts, late nights, missed naps, hot weather and jet lag and it’s probable that you’ll be spending more hours than you’d like at the start of your holiday pacing around a dark hotel room with a baby in your arms, or sitting next to a cot soothing a grumpy toddler.
Your child will settle into their new surroundings at their own pace, depending on various factors (stay tuned for posts on how to deal with jet lag and hot weather), but in the meantime, a pair of wireless bone-conducting headphones can provide some relief.
Initially developed for military operations, and now used by some cyclists and runners, these headphones sit just below your temples (see picture) and send the sound through your cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the ear drum altogether. With nothing in your ears, you can hear the world around you – including the baby being rocked to sleep in your arms – while keeping your brain occupied listening to podcasts, music or audio books. The fact that they’re wireless means no cord to get tangled up in.
My partner bought me a pair of these headphones when I was pregnant and I’ve used them practically every day since the baby girl was born. They came in particularly handy those first few months when I was still feeding her frequently at night and needed something to keep me awake (I recommend getting an Audible account too), but these days it’s when we’re travelling that they’re really useful, whether we’re heading off long distance or just around the local area.
It’s possible to push a buggy one-handed while having a conversation on a mobile, but it’s safer and easier to use wireless headphones instead, and bone-conducting ones mean you’re still aware of traffic noise. I don’t generally listen to podcasts when I’m with the baby girl unless she’s sleeping, but there have been a couple of occasions when I’ve broken that rule, like on the four and half hour train journey back to London after a month at the Edinburgh festival, when I hit a wall of tiredness and had to keep my mind occupied so as not to nod off. It was only by listening to BBC World Service documentaries that I was able to stay awake for yet another round of take-things-out-of-all-the-bags-and-hit-them-against-the-table. I stand by my choice.
At around £100 a pop, these headphones aren’t cheap, but they’re definitely worth it.
What’s on your list of essentials for travelling with babies and toddlers?
Babies may not seem like ideal companions for gallery-hopping, but with some advance planning, taking a baby to a museum can be a surprisingly fulfilling experience. I’ve actually been on more visits to more museums and galleries with the baby girl than I did in the year leading up to her birth – which is saying something, because, you know, I’m an arts journalist.
The easiest time to take your baby to a museum is before she’s interested in rolling around. Those first few months, it’s just a matter of putting her in a sling and making a note of where the café is so you know where you can sit down and have a rest. You’ll need to bring all the usual baby paraphernalia with you, of course, so I’d recommend taking a pushchair too, or you’ll get pretty tired pretty quickly carrying it all around. Most large museums and galleries will be accessible with a buggy, but if they’re not – or you don’t fancy walking around with it – ask to leave it in the cloakroom. Smaller, quirkier institutions, or those in developing countries, can be less well set up in this regard, so consider packing light and leaving the pushchair at home, in the car, or wherever you’re staying.
Once your baby is of an age where she’s not content to be carried around for extended periods, you need to be pickier about where you’re visiting. Is there an area at the museum you’d like to go to where it would be safe and appropriate to let your baby roll or crawl around on the floor to give her a break from the sling or buggy? Dedicated children’s galleries like the ones at the National Museum of Scotland are ideal, but large foyers like at the Barbican Centre also work, as do immersive installations like Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment at Tate Modern.
Visiting with a small person in tow, you won’t be able to spend hours absorbing every detail of every exhibit in the way that you might if you were there by yourself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing that you can’t possibly do it all removes the pressure of trying to do so, and the experience can be more enjoyable as a result. That said, if your baby will nap in a sling or buggy, you can probably squeeze in an hour of uninterrupted culture if you time it right.
With toddlers there are a few more things to consider. Lots of museums and galleries run free activity sessions for children and families, so check before you go to see if there’s one that coincides with your visit. Self-guided activity trails can be fun too. If there’s nothing like that on offer, buy a few postcards at the gift shop on your way in, and make a game of finding the object or art work as you go through the museum. Not all toddlers will have the patience for such an activity, but you could try the simpler, DIY version instead: do basic drawings in a notebook of objects that appear – trees, cars, etc – and get your offspring to race around trying to find them.