Reviewed by Holly Barradell
A Birdsnest Theatre production in association with Polka Theatre
Reviewed at Polka Theatre
For ages 3-5
Everyone has read a Michael Rosen book, everyone has had tomato soup and everyone has been to a café, right? But have you ever seen a production bring together all those elements with puppets made from kitchen utensils and live music? This production has surprise after surprise – just what young children respond to. Whenever they begin to get restless, another song starts or another animal puppet is created and they are once again hooked.
Happy Harry’s Café has by far the most elaborate set and lighting design I have seen so far in toddler’s theatre. Designer Kate Bunce’s set is remarkable for its attention to detail – the audience are invited to sit on red-check cushions, for instance, which are just like the café table cloths. This is just one of numerous subtle touches that help to involve the audience in the on-stage action.
Sitting on the first row of the jam-packed audience, the action was at times difficult to follow as we were too close and low-down – note to self: next time, hang back! Being at the front did have one huge theatrical bonus: my little boy noticed the spike marks that keep the quick-paced production technically slick for set accuracy during scene changes. It was a great reminder that for the very young audience, everything about the environment is potentially exciting, something that Polka’s cosy auditorium exploits to great effect
We couldn’t be distracted for too long, however, with a high-quality double-act from Mikey Kirkpatrick (Charlie) and Phil Yarrow (Harry). One second we were sat wide-eyed watching Harry create puppets from whisks and saucepans, the next Charlie was playing two instruments at once – just mesmerising!
It dawned on me during the show that this is the first production we have seen where everyone involved in the performance (actors, musicians, voiceover, singers, dancers) is male. The first few years of a young person’s life are spent in female-dominated arenas: nurseries, schools, and theatre (both on-stage and in the audience) at this age are often filled with women. Happy Harry’s Café offers an alternative experience of arts and creativity.
At the productions’ end, the young audience were invited to play with the props, and make their own puppets and music from utensils that filled the stage. Many children’s productions end with a little interactive moment, but with Happy Harry’s Café this experience felt particularly special: after a show that so beautifully modelled how to be artistically imaginative, it was wonderful that the children watching had a chance to be creative too.
This toddler version retains the aspects of the original that made it such a success, combining real skill, flair and enthusiasm, inducing noise and excitement, and using just the right level of repetition. Happy Harry’s Café is a kinaesthetic, auditory and visual overload – what more could a young audience want?
Holly works in Drama education but trained originally in Stage Management at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She is just about to start as a secondary Head of Expressive Arts faculty but currently works in arts curriculum design and reform. Holly does many things but most importantly she is a Mum to her 1 year old little boy. You can read more about what Holly gets up to on her blog. Follow Holly @drama_holly