Preview: Baby Balloon & Big Balloon, by Oily Cart

Acclaimed children’s theatre company Oily Cart specialises in producing work for “impossible audiences”. But how do you create theatre for six month-old babies?:

 The audience at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, west London – which is comprised of 10 children (aged between six months and two years old) and their parents and carers – is enraptured. As two playful, clownish figures emerge from inside a huge white inflatable pod (like a cross between a balloon and an igloo), even the tiniest tot stares in fascination. When the charmingly physical performers play balloon games, and then invite their young audience to join in, the unmitigated pleasure is tangible.

   Baby Balloon, a new show from London-based theatre company Oily Cart, achieves what many people in the theatre world believe is impossible; it captures the imagination and the concentration of very young children. It does so not only through its use of fabulously physical performance and colourful balloons, but also through a complex, yet intelligently simple, synthesis of live and recorded music, carefully attuned audience participation and superb lighting and video. The piece has no narrative to speak of, playing, instead, to very small children’s fascination with spectacle and the immediate feeding of the senses.

   Watching the show at Hammersmith, I found my eyes switching back-and-forth between the performance, the audience, and, in particular, one rather long-in-the-tooth, but observably enthralled, audience member; Tim Webb, director of Oily Cart. A founder member of the company – which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary – Webb watches the performance intently, regularly taking notes; but he also watches the children and the adults in the audience.

   Meeting me at the Lyric after the show, the director acknowledges, with a laugh, that the target groups for his shows are, “impossible audiences”. “Under twos are not social beings”, he observes, “they are at the centre of their own universe. If they’re interested, you know it. You get this unmediated stare, which is an amazing thing. They don’t tell you anything, they just look, sucking it in through their eyes. That response is really worth having.”

   The key to achieving the gratifying, transfixed stare of the toddler, Webb explains, is not only in entertaining the child, but also in getting the parents and carers hooked. “Baby Balloon works for babies, but it also works for adults. Everybody can be approached on a multisensory level. It’s really important to engage the adults. If you’re doing something that appeals to the children, but isn’t getting through to the adults, the adults are going to be hostile, and that’s a cue to the kids as to how they should react.”

   There’s no hostility from young or old in Hammersmith, and none, either, when I go to see Baby Balloon’s sister production, Big Balloon, at Clwyd Theatr in Mold, north Wales. Big Balloon (which is aimed at children aged three to five years) uses the same white inflatable pod as its little sibling show. This time, however, we watch it deflate before the very eyes of its proud, and now disconsolate, owner Mr Van der Loon.

   The sad, but affable, Dutchman takes us on a little journey – full of music, song, dance and movement – in search of the wind. On the way, we meet a number of charming characters, including the lady who dances in the clouds. Meanwhile, Mr Pie-In-The-Sky watches over us from his basket, held aloft by a number of large helium-filled balloons.

   It is wonderfully imaginative, enchanting stuff, employing a simple plot which fits its target audience beautifully. Like Baby Balloon, its audience is seated within the performance space, very much a part of the show. The two shows (both of which travel to Scotland in the coming weeks) share the same high standards, both in performance and technical presentation.

   Despite all this creativity, there are still those who are suspicious of Oily Cart (which also produces theatre for children and young adults with profound and multiple disabilities); thinking that the company’s work is worthy, more like social work than theatre. “Some people are worried about the work”, Webb admits. “They think, ‘it’s just a bunch of people wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and they’re getting away with it because it’s in a good cause.’ But we’ve been led by the necessity to find ways of communicating with these audiences, and we’ve developed techniques which, I think, are stripped down, pure and essential. When we [in the company] watch the shows, we want to feel the hairs going up on the back of our necks, it has to work for us too.”

   There’s no question that Oily Cart have been having the intended effect on audiences in Scotland. In recent years they have brought shows such as The Conference Of The Birds (a beautiful piece for children with profound disabilities) and If All The World Were Paper (an enchanting work for pre-school kids), to the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling, receiving audience and critical acclaim.

   If Scottish theatre likes Oily Cart, the feeling is entirely mutual. “Theatre programmers in Scotland can see the value of work which is trying to communicate with groups which it is usually assumed you can’t communicate with”, says Webb.

   In particular, he sings the praises of the MacRobert, long considered the best arts venue for children in Scotland. Webb goes further, “It’s the best venue, when it comes to working with young people, in the whole of the UK. The people who run it are very inspired. They take the kids seriously, from the way the food’s presented, to the height of the tables in the restaurant, to the way the theatres are laid out. They’ve got the right people.”

   Tim Webb’s white pod comes north of the border soon; and, from very young children to parents and carers, Scottish audiences are about to discover that Oily Cart has the right people too.

Big Balloon is at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, January 30 to February 3. Baby Balloon is at The Brian Cox Theatre, Glasgow (call the Tron box office for tickets), February 6-10, and the North Edinburgh Arts Centre, February 13-17.

This article was first published in the Sunday Herald in January 2007

© Mark Brown


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