Youth is wasted on the young. The prime example of this is sleep – little people can casually reject it, a complacency created by three things:
- They’re pretty much allowed to sleep whenever they want
- Grown-ups want them to sleep whenever they can
- They’re roundly considered adorable whenever they do*
So whilst Duvet Day sounds like any over-worked adults dream (the blurb reads: “We’re staying in bed all day.” Yes please!), its targeted audience of 0-18 month olds have other ideas. Inside a comfy tent, they wriggle out of the blankets carefully placed over them, crawl and lunge across the soft floor, and reach hungrily inside the prop box. Everything about Old Saw’s new production for babies is intended to create a gentle experience for parent and child, but the first rule of being a baby is babies don’t play by nobody’s rules.
Duvet Day isn’t set up for this kind of spontaneous interaction. Parents are quietly prompted by ushers to grab hold of runaway children, and the action continues uninterrupted, rather than responsive. It feels like a missed opportunity in spite of the inevitability. Really young children are always going to dash about, and snug surroundings filled with cushions, interesting stuff and loads of others babies is just too tempting.
The informal, tactile setting also suggests a certain freedom of movement, so it needs to be clearer from the outset what kind of show this is (in Duvet Day‘s case, it’s a kids-on-laps jobbie). Scrunch, Sarah Argent’s Christmas piece for 6 – 18 month olds, did this wonderfully. Argent herself stood up before the show and reassured the audience that they could move about or leave if they needed to. In the first few moments of the show, actor Kevin Lewis rocked a doll baby to sleep before placing it carefully in a crib, casting a hush over the audience and setting the tone for the following half an hour. Duvet Day has created the right environment, but needs to develop the right atmosphere.
The production revolves around its setting: from under a glowing duvet, three boxes appear, and pulled from each are materials and objects that create new surroundings. A knitted tree rises up and out, across the tented ceiling above our heads. The sea is a blue gauze backdrop for shoals of puppet fish,and clouds resemble sheep and rabbits. Though it all looks lovely, it is quite literally over the young audience’s heads, and takes too long to set up and take apart. Distant design loses attention; up-close action proves more engaging, like the pillow whale soaring nearby, or the fluffy clouds that tickle noses.
These sensory moments should be the focal points in a structured experience for a very young audience, but the show instead prioritises narrative. At the show’s beginning, we are introduced to a baby star; as it explores each new setting, it finds a creature with the same number of components – a five-petalled flower, a five-pointed starfish. With a fixed expression and unjointed arms, the star is more cuddly toy than puppet. As the performer (Aya Nakumura) ties him to her front with dressing-gown chords, it seems perhaps he’s her favourite plaything rather than an animated character – unable to feel invested in the star, and unsure whether it or the performer are the protagonist as the spotlight shifts, the play’s climax feels underwhelming.
Perhaps this is also because babies don’t really go big on beginnings and endings. Their breakfast, the journey to the theatre, waiting in the foyer, being plonked on the duvet floor – in a way, that’s all just as much a part of the show. Similarly, they won’t know it’s over (and they definitely won’t clap): forget meaningful conclusions, and move fluidly between sections. After the more formal ‘end’, Duvet Day brings out a final box full of fun things to touch and mess about with; rather than this slightly stilted, tacked-on stay-and-play, this should be recognised and incorporated as an important part of the production, offering an opportunity to move smoothly between the play and interactive ‘play’. There’s lots of potential here, but the show needs to surrender perfection and embrace the unplanned.
*(Here, the Venn diagram of cats and infants intersects.)
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