Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Reviewed at Oaklands School as part of Imaginate Festival
A production for young people aged 6-14 with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD)
Though Bamboozle Theatre’s Down to Earth experiments with narrative more than previous productions for a PMLD audience, the World War II context is primarily useful for providing the interactive, multi-sensory elements the company are known for. As the Land Girls harvest their vegetable patch, the audience are invited to smell, touch and even taste the fresh produce, until an air raid warning sends everyone dashing into the nearby forest, inhabited by glowing fireflies, buzzing bees and slithering snakes. There’s a bit of artistic licence at play; this development isn’t based on evidence that woods were used as a safe shelter. But Down to Earth isn’t about a realistic plot – what the show offers its audience is a stimulating environment and immersive experience.
The limited audience (just six young people and their carers) allows for a personalised experience, and most of the production involves the actors interacting with each child individually, including songs which address them by name. Taking into account potential additional sensory needs of the audience, such as visibility issues, much of the action is close-up, which again allows for intimate explorations of texture, weight, movement, smell and sound. This is supported by Sue Pyecroft’s design, which sees each child seated underneath their own tree in the forest, glittering with fairy lights. The performers make constant assessments about the reactions of the audience, tailoring the action to individual needs – in the performance I saw, it was clear that one of the young people really responded to the music, so the musician made a concerted effort to exploit opportunities that could bring him, and his guitar and ukulele, nearby.
A key tenet of Bamboozle’s work is respecting their audience: in Down to Earth, for example, each child is specifically asked whether they would like to dance, rather than moved without any opportunity to express a preference. The performers’ language choices also seem designed to avoid patronising exchanges; after every interaction, for instance, the performers thank each child, rather than congratulate them.
These approaches are part of Bamboozle’s methodology, developed during the company’s 22-year history. It’s a methodology that also prioritizes giving the audience space: the young audience may be used to constant assistance, so carers are asked prior to the performance to take a hands-off approach, allowing them to engage on their own level. The most obvious example of this occurs when all of the children are seated in a circle, interspersed with the performers, around jars of fireflies – for the first time their carers are sat behind and apart from them. A pause follows, one that, according to director Christopher Davies, is a nod to the two-minute silence on Armistice Day. An unexplained silence of this type would be uncomfortable in any theatrical setting, but this is exactly what Davies is trying to provoke – leaving a silence far longer than is comfortable to give the audience adequate time to respond, as well as a rare opportunity for stillness and quiet.
Transforming the school setting, Down to Earth offers an imaginative alternative to the world its audience is used to. Most importantly, it is a world crafted to prioritise three valuable things: space, time and respect.
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