Review written by Flossie Waite
A Polka Theatre production as part of Brain Waves Festival
21st September – 6th October
For ages 6 – 18 months
Creator and director Sarah Argent’s previous shows have proved that creating theatre for babies is a fine science – one requiring, amongst other factors, surprisingly specific age restrictions, carefully limited performance lengths, and what seems to be some innate understanding of baby brains and what makes them tick. Partnering Argent with neuroscientists from Birkbeck’s Babylab, then, always promised to be a fruitful collaboration, and Shake, Rattle & Roll doesn’t disappoint.
Brain Waves is Polka Theatre’s first Festival of Childhood, a much-anticipated and highly ambitious fortnight of events with the shared aim of illuminating how young people’s brains work, bringing science and theatre together. One of four original plays taking place during the festival, Shake, Rattle & Roll caters for the very youngest audience: 6 – 18 months old. Argent worked with a team of three scientists from Birkbeck’s Babylab (a centre for studies to better understand how babies learn and develop) each with different areas of research – rhythm and dance in babies, how babies read social movement, and what makes babies laugh. Polka’s blog reveals the impressive extent to which the resulting production was a joint endeavour and a genuine creative exchange – one that saw both parties realise that their professions have more in common than they thought.
It’s surprising to see just how much the Babylab environment itself influenced the production’s direction. Audiences are welcomed into their own ‘Babylab’, a theatrical interpretation of the scientific setting complete with some of the objects and toys you could expect to find there. This is unlike Argent’s previous works, which tend to offer up cosier settings familiar to young people – inside bedrooms or gardens or playgrounds. Though the Babylab is far barer and more futuristic, with its ultra-shiny floor and electronic space sounds, it still feels intimate, aided by Chris Randall’s engaging lighting design, Julian Butler’s carefully-constructed original score, and performer Maisie’s excited exploration of the space.
In recreating Birkbeck Babylab, the play attempts an exploration of a child’s experience at the lab, cycling through the types of activities or prompts that might typically be used. It makes for a slightly random assortment of events rather than any sort of recognizable structure, though this probably grasps the true nature of their encounters. Unlike in the lab, the young audience are unable to join in the activities for the majority of the show, though they are understandably keen to get involved; unlike Argent’s previous plays, the end-on staging is probably the least successful element of the production. That said, patience is rewarded with an interactive playtime – a baby disco no less! The creation of Shake, Rattle & Roll seems to have been an invaluable opportunity for one of our leading children’s theatre-makers to hone their craft, most clearly in the way it has pushed Argent into unfamiliar territory, and the full impact of this development remains to be seen over the course of her future projects.
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