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: 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: 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.

Essential kit, part 2: wireless bone-conducting headphones

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.

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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?