Monday, 16 July 2018

Toddler Utopia: Dream Worlds, the Night Garden and Chaucer.

Last year I wrote about the simple and arresting joy of a trip to see In the Night Garden Live in Richmond and as we passed the inflatable snow dome this year (with children finally emerged from the target age category of this show) already they found themselves gripped with a nostalgia for these toddler household friends. I have re-posted a section from our previous review here to give you a taster for the show:

"In the Night Garden is an adorable production for the very young and rarely have I witnessed such unparallelled delight in little people as at the arrival of these household names in larger than life form before their eyes. In The Night Garden is one of those utterly bizarre, and probably genius, Cbeebies programmes that have captured the heart of a nation. At the slightest whisper of threat to children's programming, parents declare war in defence of Upsy Daisy the pacifier and Iggle Piggle the entertainer of their miniature brood. I'm not sure a few years ago that I could have imagined I'd be writing an article about this surreal toddler wonderland, but there too leapt I into the giant showdome, pre-schoolers in tow, and found myself surrounded by the Richmond parenthood chanting along in one voice to the unintelligible but gripping choruses of Makka Pakka, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka moo! and Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, woo!  
I wonder what a future anthropologist falling upon some ancient footage might deduce from such scenes: who are these furry deities depicted on materials from dining equipment to painted bedroom walls, treasured in effigy and emitting strange and otherwordly chanting? But to the 2 year old, who sees true friends and companions in these colourful puppets, the whole phenomenon makes total sense.

There are again two shows available this summer, each covering a simple tale. Let's be honest these are not (for the adult observer) complex and gripping tales of adventure. In one Makka Pakka travels around the garden, introducing a range of his buddies and washing their faces. At one point he loses a sponge. The sponge is consequently r
ecovered. There are bubbles. There is dancing. In the Ninky Nonk show, which we saw last year, Igglepiggle loses his blanket and all his friends help him find it. But the joy created in this showdome is utterly infectious. It was a thoroughly happy event, with audible expressions of delight throughout from young and old alike. It isn't cheap and inevitably is rather commercialised, but it is a great child-friendly performance and good option for a first experience of theatre designed entirely for and on a perfect wavelength for the very young.

My (then) four year old, who in hindsight didn't consider herself too mature for the whole experience, was particularly taken with the sense of scale and use of various sized puppets to bring the Night Garden alive. A larger Makka Pakka emerged alongside the Pontipines, whilst a smaller puppet was used beside the enormous Iggle Piggle. There were glorious moments when Iggle Piggle's boat appears amongst the waves, when Upsy Daisy finally danced onto stage, and when projections of stars onto the ceiling made the whole experience multi-dimensional.

As I circled my toddler's palm with my finger as the show began and witnessed her childish awe at the familiar spectacle unfolding before her, the emotion associated with the brevity of this tiring but wonderful phase rather bowled me over. I found myself wanting Oliver-like to bottle the whole experience. For In the Night Garden - for better or for worse - seems to be a right of passage for today's toddler and now, as then, I recall the immortal words of Evelyn Waugh: "I should like to bury something precious in every place that I have been happy, so that when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember." "

Yet, what did I know back then as I noted the simple tales lacking complexity? This year I stumbled across a fascinating article in the New Statesman by Medieval and Early Tudor historian, Amy Licence. In her in-depth analysis of the plotlines and characters of this world between waking and sleep, with its utopian vision and eternal temperate summer, she unpacks its Chaucerian roots, including the strict literary conventions it follows from structure to setting and characters: "Parents can be reassured by the BBC’s admission that the “tone of the programme is deliberately literary” although it is perhaps more literary than they realise. What these tots are actually getting is a dose of the conventions of medieval poetry. Specifically, Chaucer’s dream visions."

"The programme begins with a sleepy-eyed toddler, lying in bed, having the palm of their hand stroked soothingly. “The night is black and the stars are bright and the sea is dark and deep” begins the song, almost hypnotically. Just as the toddler drifts off, so dream poetry often begin with the narrator lying down restlessly and hoping for the onset of sleep. As “the day began to fail and the dark night” arrives, as in The Parliament of Fowls, the boundaries blur between the conscious and waking worlds. Here, Chaucer’s narrator often meets a guide, who helps him navigate through this dream world. For CBeebies’ sleepy toddlers, there is the blue, fluffy figure of Iggle Piggle... Presented like a toddler’s drawing of a man, with his little shock of red hair and matching blanket, he is the “everyman” bridge between the worlds."

Upsy Daisy looks like, and is, a child’s doll. The heroines of Chaucer’s dreams are also similarly mannequinesque, with “golden hair and wide bright eyes.” One is even strangely boneless and unreal; her neck is “smooth and flat without hollow or collarbone” and “every limb rounded, fleshy and not over-thin,” while another is “a feminine creature, that never formed by nature, was such another seen.” They are as animate as the toys that people the Night Garden. Iggle Piggle’s little fabric heart, however, has been won. Quick to swoon in situations of intense emotion, such as a sneeze, he recalls the guide of The Book of the Duchess, eager “to worship her and serve as best I then could,” who declares his love but “she never gave a straw for all my tale.” The toys play with the ball, symbolic of the to and fro of romance. They are the lovers of medieval legend, forever enclosed within their perfect garden but childlike, safe and innocent. And, just as in The Parliament of Fowls, they have their own Cupid, the dumpy brown Makka Pakka, reminiscent of a little Renaissance putto." 

It's a fascinating piece - I recommend a full read here.

The magic of our last visit was also completed by a chance to meet the characters. Culturetot's little buddy found the experience a little too daunting (they are huge), but this year Culturetot really threw herself into the experience, chatting to the characters who were really excellent with the children. The joy was palpable. We also trialed a goody-bag. Often these sorts of themed packs can be poorly made, but the one we received had really high quality items - a soft toy, books and a breakfast set that is still a favourite a year on.

In the Night Garden Live runs annually and tickets can be booked at this site, though the website notes that this may be the last year in the showdome. The next two legs of the 2018 tour are at:

Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham
7 July - 22 July 2018

intu Trafford Centre, Manchester
28 July - 19 August 2018

There are 4 shows a day at 10am, 12 noon, 2pm and 4pm. There are no shows on Tuesdays. Each show lasts just under one hour.

We received a family ticket last year in exchange for an honest review of the performance. As always all views are very much my own. Photographs courtesy of In the Night Garden Live or our own.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

What the Ladybird Heard - Live on Stage

When Culturebaby was really young, one of the first pieces of childrens' theatre we went to see was the stage production of What the Ladybird Heard based on the modern classic by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Lydia Monks. It was therefore particularly lovely to revisit this all singing, dancing, rhyming celebration of brilliant writing for children.

The energetic cast of just four brings the book to life splendidly with catchy tunes, musical instruments and clever puppetry. Here we join a farmer and his yard of creatively crafted animals, including a prized cow who is frankly rather pleased with her own credentials. Using items from around the farm, the cast cleverly brings a host of animals to life. A horse emerges from a bath and a bike, a sheep from handlebars and a rug, a hog from a barrel and cart, a dog from a brush... Farmhands and theatre stewards double up as the crooks Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len who are determined to steal the farmer's prize cow and retire on the proceeds.
"Once upon a farm lived a fat red hen, a duck in a pond and a goose in a pen, a woolly sheep, a hairy hog, a handsome horse and a dainty dog, a cat that miaowed and a cat that purred, a fine prize cow... and a ladybird.

And the cow said, ‘MOO!’, and the hen said ‘CLUCK!’, ‘HISS!’ said the goose and ‘QUACK’ said the duck. ‘NEIGH!’ said the horse. ‘OINK!’ said the hog. “BAA!” said the sheep and “WOOF!” said the dog. One cat miaowed whilst the other one purred… And the ladybird said never a word."
Hugh and Len plan their great robbery meticulously - planning to follow the sound of the animals as they creep around in the dead of night - but with the help of an extremely talented ladybird, the animals are determined to protect their friend and foil the thieves' plan.

Julia Donaldson herself describes What the Ladybird Heard as one of her favourites amongst all the books she has written (she has since produced sequels including What the Ladybird Heard Next and What the Ladybird Heard on Holiday). She notes: "The germ of the idea was born when my youngest son, Jerry, had just started primary school and couldn't read yet fluently. The teacher asked the class to match up some animal words with their sounds. In Jerry's case the result was quite comical: a hen hisses, a dog moos, and so on. I couldn't help laughing (though not in front of my son) when I saw his piece of work, but I had no idea that many years later it would inspire me to write What the Ladybird Heard."

Donaldson has said how wonderful it is to see her characters come to life on stage and illustrator Lydia Monks has been involved in the development of the live show - which certainly captures the essence of her adorable illustrations. The challenge was to stray true to the short story, whilst extending it to an hour of theatre. The songs and audience participation achieve this in a seemingly effortless manner and the jolly cast managed to get everyone up dancing by the coda.

When we posted about our trip to see the show this half term at the wonderful Rose Theatre in Kingston, so many of our friends who have seen it agreed what a fantasic production it is. There are performances tomorrow in Kingston and then Ladybird will be touring the country. You can find a performance near you here.
"At the dead of night the two bad men (Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len) opened the gate while the farmer slept and tiptoe into the farm they crept. Then the goose said, “NEIGH!” with all her might. And Len said, “That’s the horse — turn right." And the dainty dog began to QUACK. “The duck!” said Hugh. “We’re right on track.” "OINK,” said the cats. “There goes the hog! Be careful not to wake the dog.” “BAA BAA BAA,” said the fat red hen. “The sheep! We’re nearly there,” said Len. Then the duck on the pond said, “MOO MOO MOO!” “Two more steps to go!” said Hugh. And they both stepped into the duck pond — SPLOSH!"
Disclaimer: We received tickets to the performance for the purposes of review. As always all views are very much our own. Images and quotes courtesy of the Rose Theatre Kingston and Ladybird Live. For more great family programming at the Rose Theatre see their website here. For more Donaldson, the Gruffalo's Child will be playing in October.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Let's All Dance: The Princess and the Frog

Since discovering Let's All Dance and their engaging, tailored and well pitched ballets for children, we've been to see The Owl and the Pussycat and most recently the Princess and the Frog. Short and (importantly) affordable, these productions feature two energetic dancers who engage with the audience and even have the patience to pose for a photograph with every single child after the production. This openness is indicative of the ethos of Let's All Dance which was created by founder Orit Sutton (who is always around to chat at performances) to combine fantastic dancing and beautiful costume with "crystal clear storytelling to engage and delight young audiences". We were sitting beside another family who admitted they were rather addicted to the series.

The Princess and the Frog is an original ballet and score, intended to open up classical ballet for the youngest of viewers. Based on a fairytale with an important message, the dancers bring to life the spoilt princess only concerned for her own games, and a frog desperate for a friend. Losing her golden ball into the pool, the princess uses the frog to retrieve it, promising a friendship she had no intention of keeping. However, little by little the frog and the princess become attached and as the princess's behaviour changes, ultimately she is able to free the playmate she has grown to love. 

As I've written before, one of the unique elements of the Let's All Dance Ballets is their intimacy. You feel closer to the dancers than in a normal ballet, with the Owl and the Pussycat it was almost as if the dancers had come to dance just for us in our own home, they were so close you felt as if you were on the stage with them. Though the Princess and the Frog was in a larger theatre the dancers still achieved this proximity to the audience, coming out into the aisles while they danced and inviting one lucky little chap onto the stage to take part in the performance.

Through having children I'm increasingly loving rediscovering fairy tales and myths and they remain core favourites in the bedtime story selections. Usborne does a great selection (from the very well known to the fabulous and more obscure) as part of their brilliant Early Readers series, likewise Ladybird has a wide selection and through the years has produced various versions of the Princess and the Frog - some strikingly 80s in style! Albert Einstein famously noted: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” The moral messages, the story construction, the imagination, their foundation in much adult referencing and fiction... Like myths and biblical stories, such tales form a canon of references that help us to understand our culture better. Seeing these stories come alive on stage in such a memorable way really adds to the magic of this discovery. We are loving Russian fairy tales at present. I'm even indulging in some adult editions. I highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale and its sequel The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden, and many of the ten year olds in our life are devouring the inventive School for Good and Evil.

Why not do some follow on science too inspired by the story? I've found that Spring is such a perfect time to explore the theme of life cycles. We have six brilliant Safariology life-cycle model sets which come in four or five stages of a creature's development and encourage exploration, sorting and play. The frog edition comes in five parts and is scrumptiously tactile for hands-on learning.

A few years ago I set up a simple pond-like sensory play tub with the frog set using a base of green water beads. This fun little resource (not for children who still mouth) grow from tiny beads with the addition of water, and they are slimy and squishable to the touch. Once the weather improved we also incorporated some of these little models in a spot of outdoor water play. We are also fans of pond dipping. See here for some associated summer activities.

Let's All Dance will be touring with their new production, Alice in Wonderland, from May.
Please visit their website for more info and to book tickets:

Disclaimer: We received tickets for the performance for the purposes of review. All opinions are very much our own.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Baby at the British Museum

When I began writing this blog, Culturebaby was tiny and I was constantly on the look out for high quality, brilliant books for babies and toddlers to introduce them to art and history. Even 6 years ago there was very little on the history side. I gathered rather a lovely collection about art (see here) and began to piece together an Egyptian version (here and here) but with the exception of the gorgeous One Blue Hippo: An Ancient Egyptian Counting Book and quirky Tickle Tut's Toes there was little else for toddling archaeologists. I was therefore delighted to be approached last year to review the stunning progeny of a well matched marriage between The British Museum and publisher Nosy Crow. The resulting exquisite and fascinating books, which unpacked the collections of the museum in a bright and engaging way, really filled a gaping hole in early years provision for miniature museum-goers and their families. 

The first titles I'd like to talk about form part a series called Early Learning at the Museum. These four sumptuous and well designed board books are full of high quality photographs of items from the BM's collections, showcased against colourful backdrops. Covering Colours, Opposites, 123 and ABC (with others being published since), the books aim to develop the essential areas of learning for little people. I also love that these titles draw from a wide spectrum of the museum's collections from prints and drawings and paintings to textiles, jewellery, pottery and archaeological items. These may be objects found in perhaps lesser-visited galleries which encourage us to look beyond the sarcophagi to other intriguing realms. We journey from Japan to America, Africa to Scandinavia on a single page and are encouraged to look at the objects thematically, numerically, for their colourful properties or for their similarities across the ages or geography. Pitt-Rivers-like, we explore collections by theme, or we see wildly different items juxtaposed for their contrasting qualities.

The absolute winner of the pack for the girls who are now 4 and 6 is 123, which works from 1 to 20 items. The numerical element of this book allows for a kaleidoscopic array of items on many of the pages and the girls love working through it and selecting which item they would choose if given the option. We also play 'guess the oldest item'. Pages with selections of dolls, keys, bags, hats, spoons, cups and rings hold endless fascination.

The titles also come with internet codes for parents linking to further information, and are ripe for use with follow-on activities to discover the items in real life on journeys through the galleries. These I-spy activities are so effective and need little preparation (see here for an example with Tate's Matisse exhibition). I simply cannot rave enough about these brilliant and beautiful books.

Accompanying the Early Learning Series is a fabulous playbook, that suits a range of ages. Mixed-up Masterpieces again features a set of high quality photographs of faces from the British Museum's collections. From ceremonial masks to marble busts, Halloween costumes to figurines, again we travel through the collections meeting a range of characters. As babies finish with simple black and white shapes and begin to perceive colour (see here for why), they begin to be fascinated with faces. This book would be perfect for this earliest of stages; but it is also a creative puzzle for older children. The reader is invited to either discover the correct combination of facial features amongst 2000 combinations, or create their own weird and wonderful combinations.

Finally in the early years set is a new Egyptian title to add to our collection: Mummy! by Lerryn Korda. With the simplest of concepts and aimed at the 0-2 range, I thought when it arrived that it might be a little young for almost 4 year old Culturetot, but she's really taken to it. A little Egyptian girl can't find her Mummy and embarks on a journey on the banks of the Nile to locate her. Along the way she encounters a host of different Mummies - from animal to embalmed  - and finally finds her own. The loveliest feature of this little Board book is that it includes hieroglyph translations of a number of the key words, introducing the tiniest of readers to this most intriguing of languages.

For older children (as well as adults) there is also a beautiful set of several creative colouring books. Again inspired by the collections of the museum and with an inspiration guide at the end, these have been one of the most successful activity books for the girls as they loved the idea. Containing greetings cards paired with an envelope to construct, colour and decorate, and a sticker to seal it all, the girls were able to use this resource to make their own birthday and thank you cards for friends. Given the bonkers prices of greetings cards these days, these are also both excellent value and produce a rather more unique offering from the girls to any recipient. They even have a cute little box for them to sign "coloured for you by..."

Disclaimer: Nosy Crow is working with the British Museum in an exclusive partnership to create a broad range of children’s books to sell to the UK trade and beyond. The British Museum is ‘a museum of the world, for the world’. The books draw on the British Museum’s internationally recognised brand, its unparalleled collection of objects and its world-class expertise. We were sent copies of these books for the purposes of a review. All views are very much our own and we only ever review books we love and recommend.

Monday, 23 April 2018

George's Marvellous Medicine & Chocolate Cake - Scrumptious Easter Theatre for Kids

We are really lucky in South West London to have two theatres that are fantastic for children. The family programming at The Rose in Kingston is of a really high quality, and this Easter we also went on our first visit to the Polka in Wimbledon - a theatre dedicated exclusively to children between 0 and 14 complete with café and play areas.

On Good Friday we joined a packed audience at the Rose to see George's Marvellous Medicine. It was rather the local event - lots of people from the area have mentioned that they have been and loved it. I think this is fabulous - theatres should be at the heart of community, part of the warp and weft of our family routines. The offer at the Rose is so fantastic it never fails to deliver - this time we took one of Culturebaby's friends - its a great idea for a slightly different playdate.

The girls are really getting into Roald Dahl. We have a great set of audiobooks that we listen to on long journeys and as a real surprise this year Culturebaby passed over any opportunity to wear a ball gown or a tutu and went to World Book Day at school as Matilda, clutching a basketful of books. They hadn't yet read George's Marvellous Medicine, so this interactive, fun and musical production was a great introduction to this Dahl classic.

George is on half term and can't wait to crack open his latest novel, but unexpectedly (and equally unwelcomely) his grumpy Grandma announces her imminent arrival to stay... indefinitely. Wielding a buzzer and using it regularly, his Grandmother proves both mean and demanding. George resolves to cure her mood with a fantastical medicine of his own invention. I was reminded on watching quite how deathly this medicine really would have been (and the cast took great pains to reiterate 'don't try this at home') but somehow George's marvellous medicine proves far from toxic - instead on ingestion it causes spectacular growth...

What we loved about this colourful and high energy production (with a Grandma who really did steal the show) was the extent to which a delighted audience were involved. In a test of observation, we had to help George create his medicine and then piece back together the initial concoction when more was required. The young audience did rather well...


Chandni Mistry, who plays the role of the Chicken, talks about the production.

“I’m so excited to be part of this show! Our production of George’s Marvellous Medicine shows how imagination is the most amazing thing, not just for kids but for adults too. All George wants to do over his school holiday is read a book but the adults keep getting in the way. To get around that, he finds the most ridiculously inventive ways to have fun again. 

“When I first got the part I really didn’t know what to expect. Obviously I play a giant Chicken but exactly how we’d make that happen on stage was a mystery to me. Our Director, Julia Thomas, has a brilliant eye for creativity and invention that keeps everything a surprise and a little unexpected. I’m certainly not your typical Chicken!   

“One thing I’ve got to say about this show is how amazing the cast and creative team are. Everyone is giving their all behind the scenes and up on stage, I think that really shows too –you can’t get up in front of audiences as a Chicken or a grumpy Joan Collins-esque Grandma and be even a little bit shy. It’s all or nothing!  

“This is a kids’ show but it really is fun for the entire family. Julia Thomas and our Designer Morgan Large have packed the production full of references to modern life that keep it current and fun for all ages. Tasha Taylor-Johnson, our Composer, has also infused the show with this incredibly funky, hip hop soundtrack that you can’t help but want to move to. It’s a brilliant vibe. 

“We do have a strong ‘don’t try this at home’ message in the show but we’re also really inspiring creativity and entrepreneurship in our audiences. A lot of our props are made from recycled objects and we actually spent hours when rehearsals first began just letting our imaginations run wild and making the props that you see on stage, from pigs to milkshake machines. It was great for us to get in that creative zone and the things we made from the most random objects absolutely work in George’s world. 

“This is the first time I’ve ever performed in an adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s stories but I’ve always loved him as a writer. I remember reading his stories when I was younger and finding them so funny, there’s a lot of nostalgia for me in this production. That’s the great things about Dahl – kids are still reading his stories and are coming to the theatre with their parents who also read the books when they were children. They have this universal appeal that brings everyone together which is fantastic to make come to life on stage."

“I think my favourite thing about this production (and there are lots to choose from!) is the reaction we get from audiences each performance. Hearing the crowd laugh and enjoy the show is just the best feeling you can have.”

George's Marvellous Medicine is touring and is currently in Liverpool.

undefinedWe were also very pleasantly surprised by our first trip to the Polka to see Michael Rosen's Chocolate Cake. We love his writing but this piece was a first for us. It's wonderful to go to the theatre to celebrate already loved books or productions, but it is also a joy to experience new ones, to go not knowing what to expect, and to come away the richer. Chocolate Cake is a musical play based on a poem by Michael Rosen (now a book) and in the production we meet a young Michael, his older brother and his mother. Michael looks up to his older brother who he perceives to be much cooler, funnier, and cleverer than him - but he doesn't see his own strengths. Michael's favourite treat is chocolate cake. He dreams about it, creates stories about it, and looks forward with impatience to the next opportunity to eat some - his brother's birthday. The evening before the party an enormous cake created by his mother is stored safely in the kitchen, ready and waiting. The anticipation proves just too much for Michael. He wakes in the night and creeps downstairs...

There are some wonderful touches in the show. It is very human - messages of handling temptation, forgiveness, patience and family love and the music was excellent. Mark Houston who plays Michael has a really great voice and his '50s style song 'I'm Sorry' was a real highlight. Although we never know whether the story is true, we realise that Michael is in fact a young Rosen. His mother talks about his creative imagination and that his poem about a bear hunt was mentioned by the teacher as the best in class. We are left wondering whether he too had a brother that he felt in awe of. We all really enjoyed the production.

Set designer Verity Quinn talks in the programme about her inspiration for the design of Chocolate Cake. "I wanted to create a design which felt a bit like a living pop-up book of Michael's mind, using geometric shapes and bold colours which could pop out and fold away to celebrate the creativity and imagination of Michael's life., I was especially inspired by the abstract colour block paintings of Piet Mondrian, by Pop artists Claus Oldenburg, Patrick Caulfield and Roy Lichtenstein and by Russian interior designer Daria Zinovatnaya... I love the freedom there is at Polka to create unusual worlds that are full of possibilities. It's a really unusual space to design for which challenges me to be inventive and there's a fantastic production team here who bring the designs to life with skill and ingenuity."

Why not try some Mondrian-inspired follow on art activities on our blog here.

You kind find out more about the excellent programming at the Rose theatre here, and the Polka here. The Rose has recently announced its 2018 Christmas show, a festive new version with original music of the Brothers’ Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel written by Ciaran McConville, who returns to the theatre following last year’s successful adaptation of Alice in Winterland (see our review here). Rosie Jones will direct a cast of local young actors from Rose Youth Theatre led by a team of professional actors. The production opens on Fri 14 Dec, with previews from Thu 6 Dec, and runs until Sun 6 Jan 2019.
Chocolate Cake is touring to a range of locations around the country.

Disclaimer: We received tickets to the performances in exchange for an honest review. All views as always are our own. Photographs courtesy of the Polka and Rose theatres.
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