Sponge

Reviewed by Frankie Roberto
A Big Imaginations and Turned On Its Head production
Reviewed at the Barbican
Touring nationally in Spring/Summer 2017
Performed in 2 versions: for 3 – 14 months, and for 3 months – 4 years (reviewer saw this version)


How entertaining can a sponge be? Well, parents already know the answer to that: pretty entertaining, as babies often find random household items fascinating. Better, then, to ask yourself how much fun 500 sponges would be: that’s what Sponge works up to, with no other props needed bar some brightly coloured buckets.

sponge

As the audience enters, two performers (Shane Shambu and Louise Gibbons) are quietly and curiously catching ‘drips’ from the ceiling that echo around the room. This instantly captures the babies’ attention and allows everyone to get settled with a minimum of fuss.

Shane assumes the role of patient but playful parent, attempting to “clean” the room, whilst Louise plays the energetic child who simply wants to play with the sponges. This loose narrative is conveyed entirely through action and dance – the show has no dialogue at all – and builds up and up into bigger and bigger movements, involving ever more sponges in a variety of sizes and colours, all set to a familiar retro soundtrack.

It was our ten month old’s first trip to the theatre, and I wasn’t sure what she would make of it. The setting of the Barbican Arts Centre, with its brutalist architecture more often home to classical music and Shakespearean plays, added to my uncertainty. But I needn’t have worried: the show was a hit. Specialist children’s theatre company Turned On Its Head spent over a year developing and fine-tuning this production, and you can tell. The show is perfectly paced, through music, costume and lighting changes, to keep all the babies enthralled throughout. When we arrive at a dream sequence with a sponge-made blobby alien wobbling onto stage, even the adults are laughing.

sponge

Towards the end of the roughly half-hour performance, the performers start directly involving the audience, first by tipping sponges on their heads, to everyone’s delight, and then by lifting individual babies onto the stage for their moment in the spotlight. This is a heart-stopping moment for any parent present, unsure as to how their child will respond. But the performers seem deeply attuned to reactions of the babies, being as gentle or energetic as required. The few babies who did cry were instantly reunited with their parents with no further fuss, whilst older or less nervous babies were swung around and entertained with a sponge.

This audience interaction soon segues smoothly into a twenty minute play session, with everyone invited onto the stage to play with the mountain of sponges. Throughout this, Shane and Louise continue to engage with the audience, encouraging tower-building, sponge throwing and sitting within the giant plastic buckets. No-one wants to leave – it seems they would stay for hours if they could – but the end is cleverly signalled with a couple of collective “sponge explosions” followed by a sorting-and-tidying of sponges into their buckets.

It’s hard to fault this performance at all, and it certainly convinced our young family that theatre can work at any age. We’ve been to a couple of other baby shows since, but Sponge has remained our fondest experience so far, so much so that we’ve booked it again for later in the year – when our baby will be a toddler!

Frankie is a freelance Creative Technologist and theatre lover from London. Follow Frankie @frankieroberto.
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