Review by Flossie Waite
Presented by Upswing in partnership with Stratford Circus Arts Centre
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For ages 5+
In this production, it isn’t the dark or monsters under the bed that frighten children – it’s busy parents. When a frazzled mum (Lewis Barfoot) dashes off halfway through a bedtime story, her little girl (Hazel Lam) worries she’s lost forever. It’s up to her and imaginary friend, Three (Nathan Johnston), to rescue Mum in this truly immersive, and truly different, piece of theatre.
The audience are invited to sit on beds and mattresses, with whole families cuddling under duvets, surrounded by cushions and bedside lamps. This intimate and inviting environment is a little pat on the back from a show about prioritising loved ones, and being able to see carers and children enjoying their time together is as much a part of the production as the characters on stage. Becky Minto’s design fuses the familiar with the fantastic – the set is a big, toy-covered bed for the little girl, and a desk covered in papers for Mum, but in the opening moments, huge screens come down around the little girl as she draws, projecting her pictures as animations that surround her.
Design is central to Bedtime Stories; the beautiful images created and the emotion they suggest are the real highlight of this show. As Mum lists her responsibilities, from feeding the pet goldfish to replacing the dead one, buying the weekly shop to saving up for her daughter’s university fees, her worries (and bills) become pieces of paper that surround her until eventually the begin falling from the ceiling. With arms outstretched, she desperately tries to catch them, an intensely moving moment, until they become overwhelming and she lies amongst the sheaves.
Another lasting image is the little girl curled up inside the moon. Feeling forgotten by her mum, she imagines flying into space and settling in the stars, an experience she performs through aerial silks. Upswing are a leading circus theatre company, and their combination of circus skills, like acrobatics, with physical theatre, creates incredibly expressive movement. Though she may be performing extraordinary and highly-specialised feats when she plays with Three, the little girl’s joyful actions capture what it feels like to be young and playing with abandon (and probably what you think you look like as well).
Unlike a big top, Bedtime Stories allows the audience a much closer look at the onstage action. There is a lot of trust involved, both for the performers as they lift, balance and throw each other around, and the audience, for whom it seems the production might come a little too close on several occasions. There are no safety nets or harnesses, and this danger, viewed from the comfort and familiarity of the comfy seating, is both thrilling and reassuring.
Though it does feel too long and at times slightly twee, this is an extremely polished production which explores a range of artistic forms – circus, projections and animations, storytelling and physical theatre – to tell a story of modern life.
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