Beasty Baby, Polka Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As anyone who’s spent time in the company of a bawling newborn will know, babies are complicated little creatures. That, essentially, is the premise of Theatre-Rites’ brilliantly simple new show for three to six year olds. Sweetly, amusingly, unhurriedly, Beasty Baby offers a series of snapshots of everyday life with these (sometime) bundles of joy, lurching from the adorable to the maddening and back again.

The baby in question is a handheld puppet, deftly manipulated by Theatre-Rites’ cast of three. Isolated in the middle of a wintry landscape, the trio suddenly find themselves landed with this temperamental infant’s care and do the same as all new parents: make it up as they go along. They cradle, they sing, they even do acrobatics trying to keep their new charge happy. As time passes, the unpredictable sprog throws up new challenges, with the grown-ups forever running (often quite literally) to catch up.

It works, then, for adults as much as for kids. Little ones giggle at the cheeky demands of the tiny tyrant, while parents make noises of weary, affectionate recognition. While little really happens, cycles of repetition and change keep the show moving forward, often driven by the seamlessly incorporated live music. Routines are established, repeated and disrupted, accompanied by a playful soundtrack. It’s all carefully calibrated to the attention span of its target audience, while achieving the double feat of keeping us bigger kids captivated at the same time.

Simplicity and clarity extend to every area of the production. The Ikea-esque wooden furniture of Verity Quinn’s design unfussily evokes both home and obstacle course, while there’s a fairytale glow to the landscape of trees and snow beyond the set’s single window. Days melt into nights melt into days again with the aid of Chris Randall’s lighting and the company’s graceful choreography of daily rituals: playing, feeding, burping. Change, as so often in life, sneaks in slowly.

It might not sound like much, but the skill of Sue Buckmaster’s deceptively straightforward production lies in finding both the sublime and the ridiculous in the familiar acts of child-rearing. Over the course of one long night, performer John Leader’s attempts to lull the mewling baby to sleep become a sort of dance, as he tiptoes, pirouettes and eventually levers himself athletically into the cot, infant in hand. The baby itself, meanwhile, is a brilliant comic creation, given cutely gabbling voice by Sian Kidd. As infant becomes toddler, both the noise level and the laughs increase, the naughtiness striking just the tone with the young audience.

In the end, though, the beastliness turns out to be worth it for the beauty – especially in the gorgeous, utterly enchanting finale. Beasty Baby is, ultimately, a celebration of all the chaos wrought by the arrival of a little one, animating for parents and kids alike the complicated joy of what it means to be a family.

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Operation Magic Carpet, Polka Theatre

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Stories matter. So often they form the very substance of human communication, allowing us to define who we are both for others and for ourselves. They are our window onto what has come before and what lies ahead. They are how we see the world, how we shape it, sometimes even how we change it. And they’re certainly not just for children.

In Operation Magic Carpet, inherited stories are not just told, but retold. Samantha Ellis’s play is about where we come from and where we are now; about roots, journeys and destinations. It’s a story about stories and it’s a story written for children, though the ideas it’s gently tussling with are far from childish.

It’s a story with a heroine: curious, imaginative, no-nonsense Nomi. The British child of Iraqi immigrants, what Nomi wants more than anything is a story of her own. She’s stranded in a second generation no man’s land, struggling to lay claim to the narratives of Iraq and reluctant to accept those of Britain. Her father urges her to embrace their new home – “you’re lucky to be born in this country with its moderate climate, moderate people and moderate politics” – while her mother and uncle yearn for the country they have left behind, their wistful remembrances shutting Nomi out. Where does she fit in?

Her answer comes via a genie in a bottle, a ride on a magic carpet, and a daring adventure through the streets of Baghdad. When an unlikely sidekick pops out of her parents’ mango pickle jar, Nomi is granted her wish of going to Iraq, but the country she finds is one more familiar from the Thousand and One Nights than from television news reports. Once there, she encounters shooting stars, a proverb-spewing caliph and Sinbad the, erm, Merchant (he doesn’t like it when he’s called Sailor). She goes in search of her mother’s lost heart but, as in all good old-fashioned adventure stories, things get a little complicated along the way.

Sadly, the magic of the story doesn’t always translate to Rosamunde Hutt’s well-behaved production. Mischief, rather than being unbottled, too often feels controlled. Some pleasingly boisterous post-interval audience interaction aside, the performance hovers just short of the playfulness really needed to captivate its target audience of six to eleven year olds. Even in a climactic fight sequence, the action lacks the verve to fully transport its young spectators, its audacious series of magical transformations somehow failing to enchant.

As a piece of theatre, though, its real value lies in its reframing of familiar narratives. Without being overtly political, Operation Magic Carpet is a challenge of sorts. Its strong female protagonist challenges the insidious gender stereotypes of so many stories for children, which quietly influence how both girls and boys see their place in the world. It challenges media narratives of Iraq, refusing to ignore the nation’s turbulent recent history but at the same time recovering its thrilling, magical past. And at a time when immigration is at the top of the political agenda, it celebrates the condition of belonging to two places at once, exposing the shallowness and lack of imagination of an insistence on “British values”.

Like I said, stories matter. And so does this one.

The Planet and Stuff, Polka Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

How do we solve climate change? As opening questions go, it’s a biggie. It’s also a question loaded with optimism and arguably childlike naivety; it implicitly makes the assumption that climate change can be solved, and that humankind is capable of a collective effort to do so. But Tonic Theatre’s new children’s show is far from blindly optimistic.

The set up is simple: “volunteers” Joe and Becci, played by Felix O’Brien and Sarah-Jane Scott, are given half an hour to explain what is causing climate change and work out what we can do to solve it. The format is a gleeful mash-up of TED talk, kids’ documentary and Blue Peter-style demonstrations – complete with “here’s one I made earlier” fossil fuels. There’s also playful interaction from the audience and just a dash of good old panto conventions; whenever a big sign lights up, for instance, we can yell at the two performers to “get on with it!”

The show begins in fairly predictable if entertaining style, explaining global warming using jumper and blanket metaphors and recruiting the audience to throw around paper planes. Familiar explanatory techniques are deployed and people are plucked from their seats to recap what we’ve learned. This is smarter, however, than your average Newsround segment. Once the initial explanations are out of the way, a tension quickly emerges between optimism and pessimism, staging a latent debate about how best to present these ideas. Should we face up to the impending disaster we are wreaking on our planet, as Joe’s litany of catastrophes suggests we should, or should we stick with Becci and keep things fun? Is fear enough to make us change, or do we need to remain stubbornly positive despite the odds?

Similar tensions rear their head when we reach the solutions half of the show, which proves much harder than simply getting across the facts. The responses of world leaders are lightly hinted at in a section entitled “the blame game”, while Joe and Becci echo all our secret, selfish reactions to the suggestion that we might need to change. Complexity is embraced rather than skirted around, as possibility follows complication follows possibility. Each solution that is proffered is countered with a disadvantage, refusing to underestimate its young audience’s grasp of these thorny questions.

Variety, however, ends up being one of the show’s greatest strengths – in more than one sense. Aesthetically, the piece is colourful and richly textured, brushing off any residue of tedium that might have attached itself to the lecture format. The pace is brisk and the tools of performance are abundant, from sound to video to audience interaction, ensuring that the attention of young (and older) audiences is not allowed to dip for a second. Multiplicity also ends up being the vital saving grace of the ever more desperate answers that Joe and Becci throw at us. Each can be undermined, but we also have the choice to make these changes, to do what we can no matter how small, and – most importantly – to try.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the central question is never quite answered. Climate change comprises a complex web of different causes and is – as this show reminds us with remarkable simplicity – symptomatic of the systems that order our lives. To suggest that there is a miracle cure would be patronising, misleading and ultimately irresponsible. Instead, there are multiple different answers, which it is up to us to wade our way through. Rather than imagining their future for them, the show asks its audience to imagine a different future for themselves. And therein, perhaps, lies its power.

Photo: Robert Workman.