Tag Archive | "Polka Theatre"

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Feature: Skitterbang Island – a cross between The Tempest and Wall-E…

Posted on 22 April 2014 by Katie Smith

“Really emotional and quite magical,” says Director Peter Glanville about Skitterbang Island, an opera for very young children, collaboratively put together by Polka Theatre and the Little Angel Theatre. “I know ‘magical’ is a world that’s overused – but in a sense you really are taken into this other world, this other island.” When one of the actors in the production, Lowri James, starts to animate the puppet of Skitterbang, the word “magical” does not seem far off the mark. Complete with long ears, fluttering wings, and a movable brow that allows for changes in expression, Skitterbang seems enchanting and real simply moving around on a table.

Aimed at children aged 3-6, Skitterbang Island returns to play at both theatres following a short run in 2010. “It kind of combines The Tempest with Wall-E,” Glanville remarks, referring to the opera’s plot. Completely sung-through, it follows a young girl, Marie, shipwrecked and separated from her uncle, as she finds friendship and companionship in the strange island inhabitant Skitterbang, only to run into further conflict when her uncle eventually finds her. It features an enviable creative team: Glanville, Polka’s Artistic Director, is directing the piece, with a score by Martin Ward (composer for the Olivier-award winning production of The Wind in the Willows) and libretto by acclaimed playwright Phil Porter.

Though the idea of an opera for young children may at first seem strange, Natalie Raybould, who puppeteers and sings the part of Marie, describes how Ward and Porter “knew how to balance serious and silly” in creating Skitterbang Island, which features the usual trademarks of an opera. “We wanted it to have all the complexities of an opera, we didn’t want to compromise,” Glanville agrees. “So it’s sung through, it’s got arias, it’s got duets, it’s got trios, it’s got all the things you would expect from an opera.” Raybould further asserts the authenticity of the piece. “There’s no ‘writing for kids’ music in this,” she says, “it’s exactly like their music for adults. And it’s just as fun, just as emotional.”

The production combines the specialities of both theatres – the puppetry expertise of the Little Angel, where Glanville was Artistic Director until November, and Polka’s specialism of creating children’s theatre. With the Polka also collaborating on future projects with Royal & Derngate as well as the Royal Opera, Glanville suggests this sort of collaboration is partially a “sign of the times” in terms of funding cuts, but mainly that there is great artistic benefit to be gained from two theatres working together. He suggests that in Skitterbang Island, opera and puppetry go hand in hand for children because “with opera, you’re singing with these kind of arcs and shapes that are non-naturalistic, and of course what we’re looking for in puppetry is the one gesture that can extend and carry through the sentence, and allow the audience to then imagine that character coming to life.” Raybould demonstrates this when she takes me to “meet” Marie. Referring to the puppet by name, and showing how simple changes in the puppet’s position can imply a range of emotions, it becomes clear how easily Sue Dacre’s puppets can appear lifelike.

It is the music, however, that helps the most to bring the characters to life. “Music gets you in the gut,” Raybould says. “Even when you know the story and you know what you’re going to sing. It still gets you. It still takes you by surprise. The whole place reacts to the music.” Raybould created her own show, Lullaby, for babies, using a combination of music, light and shadow to explore the relationship between baby and parent or carer. She strongly believes in young children experiencing music, and notes how when Skitterbang accepts the apology of Marie’s uncle, “that’s like at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Count forgives the Countess. And the music tells the story even more than the words do.” Skitterbang Island, owing a great deal to the music, also manages to explore wider themes of trust and forgiveness. Raybould notes the importance of having the adult character in the opera admit to being wrong, “which is a serious issue in itself.”

“Children really should have work exploring the human experience in the same way that we would expect that as adults,” Glanville agrees. This is something that Skitterbang Island achieves, and looks to be something we will see more of during Glanville’s tenure as Polka’s Artistic Director. He is currently looking into an immersive project that explores the possibilities and uses of the whole building, a piece developed from material created by children themselves, and the possibility of more extensive touring, but is also “thinking a lot about professional development,” and is “looking to set up a more cohesive programme that allows artists that want to create work for children and young people to come together and explore ideas through a kind of initial scratch phase, so actually we’re supporting people potentially over a process of two or three years, in terms of taking an idea through to realisation.”

This development seems to be something present in Skitterbang Island as well. The production has had a rehearsal period in which to rethink and remember the piece, as it has not been performed since 2010. All three performers were in the original production, and Raybould notes that “it’s a luxury to be able to rethink it like this, rather than hurry back in.” Although there could have been the possibility of simply attempting to slot everything back in quickly, “happily Polka and Little Angel don’t think like that, and it’s lovely to be able to take the time.” Glanville acknowledges that the audience will find the production, in parts, “really soothing; at other points it’s going be engaging, and it takes them to a lot of different places emotionally. But I think it’s unique.” The emotion he describes speaks through the music and puppetry – and although developing and changing, Skitterbang Island seems as magical as ever.

Skitterbang Island is at the Little Angel Theatre from 26 April to 15 June, and at the Polka Theatre from 25 June to 16 August. More information and tickets form the Polka’s website and the Little Angel’s website.

Katie Smith

Katie Smith

Katie is a student and occasional playwright and theatre director. When not frantically fitting in as much theatre as time will allow, she can often be found complaining, reading or drinking copious amounts of tea

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Review: Minotaur, Polka Theatre

Posted on 13 April 2014 by Camilla Gurtler


All children want their parents to be there for them, to care for them and protect them. But when a parent is deployed and leaves for military service, the balance is disrupted and it’s hard to predict how a child will react in their parent’s absence. Some will cope by defending themselves, distancing themselves from the absent parent, believing themselves to be abandoned; some might create a defence mechanism by living in their own imagination.

Freddy’s dad is fighting a war far away, leaving Freddy and his mum to deal with his absence. One day Freddy receives a mysterious text from his dad who’s in trouble, and only his son can help. Freddy finds himself transported through time to the labyrinth of ancient Minos, on a quest to save the people from the terror of the Minotaur – half-man, half-bull – who is devouring the young boys sent to his labyrinth. With the help of Ariadne, a young girl who can see into the future, he must face the Minotaur and his fears in order to save his father in the mythical world as well as the real one.

Polka Theatre is famous for creating world-class children’s theatre, and they certainly don’t disappoint with Minotaur. It’s an action-packed, energised and beautifully designed production with a very talented cast, who understand the difficulty of connecting with a young audience and who carry a piece all the way through without losing any of the children in the auditorium. Ben Stott brings fantastic energy, youth and commitment to Freddy, who as the young Theseus of ancient Greece has to endure trials and quests in order to save his dad. Carla Langley is a sweet and feisty Ariadne, and the rest of the cast double impressively as characters from both worlds encountering Freddy/Theseus in the fight against the Minotaur and his longing for his dad.

Using puppetry, Tim Lutkin’s brilliant lighting design and Lily Arnold’s magical set and costumes, which fit the age group perfectly, director Michael Fentiman shows that he doesn’t just master complexity, but that his story-telling skills are clear and engaging with one of the hardest targets: children, who need clarity and stimulating visuals in order to not get bored. Kevin Dyer’s script is touching and exhilarating, and writing about children’s experiences of a parent going to war using ancient Greek myths is a genius combination that you would hope to see more of in the future.

Minotaur is a great show for children, but adults will find themselves just as entertained and moved by the story.

Minotaur is playing at the Polka Theatre until 24 May. For more information and tickets, see the Polka Theatre website.

Camilla Gurtler

Camilla Gurtler

Camilla is currently training as a director on the Young Directors’ Programme with StoneCrabs Theatre Company. Camilla has worked as a director, actress and writer in Denmark and London, and loves Shakespeare, greek tragedies and children’s theatre. She’s obsessed with coffee, dislikes ranting on stage and hates the colour yellow. Especially mustard-yellow.

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Review: Momo, Polka Theatre

Posted on 16 March 2014 by Jemma Anderson

MomoMomo is an adaptation of Michael Ende’s book of the same name. Presented by Filament Theatre and the Greenwich Theatre, it is currently residing at the Polka Theatre, Wimbledon aimed at audiences 7+.

We follow the story of young Momo, an abandoned child, illiterate and not knowing her age. She is welcomed to the ruins of an amphitheatre by the villagers, who embrace her for her incredible ability to listen to any problems they have. Things take a turn for the worse when the Men in Grey appear, a race that promotes the ideas of ‘time-saving’, urging the residents to bank their time wisely without wasting it. Social activities are considered wasteful, and what transpires is that the cigarettes the Men smoke are made of hour-lilies, which represent time. Since her friends are now overpowered by their time-restricted lives, it is down to Momo to extinguish the cigarettes and save the day.

Director Sabina Netherclift’s vision for the nonsensical story is a strong one, and lovingly played out on stage. It has been crafted with an original score by Osnat Schmool, which is bravely sung a cappella all the way through the two-hour play. It features much tribal influence, minimal instruments and the odd use of Ladino, a language not widely heard today. The use of local school choirs is also a prominent feature, as they help the cast sing songs with the use of sign language.

Annie Siddon’s adaptation for the stage produces a story that does feel slightly laboured in the first act, slow for the ‘action’ to begin – but the second act quickens the pace much better and leads the young audience to the show’s climax effectively.

Netherclift’s programme notes mention that the fantasy world of Momo, in which the characters share so much time with each other, is of utmost importance to today’s young society: time is to be shared with each other physically, and not virtually. I whole-heartedly agree with her values, and it seems to be prominent in the piece. It also suggests to the children the importance of friendship, listening and compassion.

Luisa Guerreiro’s Momo is a loveable character, full of heart and empathy for her fellow characters. Adebayo Bolaji leads the cast with his incredible musical talents, incorporated in the character of songwriter Guido. The rest of the ensemble provide a solid base of characters as well as portraying the Men in Grey, all displaying beautiful harmonies.

If the large groups of school children’s reactions were anything to go by, Momo is a strong adaptation full of true moral and heart, designed to keep children in a fantasy world for an afternoon.

Momo is playing The Polka Theatre, Wimbledon until 22 March. For more information and tickets see the Polka Theatre website.

Jemma Anderson

Jemma is currently studying Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University. Between studying and reading about theatre, she also watches and reviews as Editor-in-chief of the Drama Department's newspaper, The Call.

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Guest blog: Theatre Centre’s Natalie Wilson and playwright Rob Evans on Write Lines, a conference on new writing for young audiences

Posted on 07 May 2013 by Natalie Wilson and Rob Evans

Theatre centre conference

Natalie Wilson, Theatre Centre’s Artistic Director, gives AYT an idea of what to expect from its forthcoming conference…

On 20 June, Theatre Centre will host Write Lines, a conference on new writing for young audiences for writers and industry professionals. Guest speakers include playwrights Amanda Dalton, Rob Evans, Bryony Lavery, Philip Osment and Evan Placey, and industry representatives Anthony Banks (NT), Jonathan Lloyd (Polka Theatre) and Purni Morell (Unicorn Theatre).

Theatre Centre is celebrating 60 years of working with writers to produce outstanding theatre for young people, and Write Lines is inspired by my experience of running our Skylines writers programme. Over the past 12 months, Skylines has encouraged 47 emerging writers to develop work for audiences aged four to 18.

I noticed how much energy was generated when writers came together, exchanged ideas, listened, questioned and debated. These moments of reflection and learning seemed to be cherished by the writers, and I want to present this opportunity again but on a bigger scale. New writing for young audiences is a niche area but the beauty is that it is open to all: experienced, emerging, young or old.

The Write Lines conference is designed to bring together writers, artists, commissioners and producers, and to harness a sense of shared purpose and best practice to produce quality new plays. The contributors offer an extraordinary and diverse wealth of experience and perspective which I hope writers will find immensely valuable.

Our contributors will galvanise debate on collaborative working with young people, cross-artform inspirations and making extant stories fresh for a contemporary stage.

Writers will be able to meet like-minded artists and hear from the commissioners about what they want from the plays they stage. TYA-England’s series of debates, Whose Title Is it Anyway?, will take a new turn with Evan Placey (winner of the Brian Way Award 2012) presenting a provocation to four leading new writing commissioners on what writers can offer the programmes of our theatres and companies. Write Lines aims to bring writers and producers together, and perhaps a few new collaborations will be seeded by the end of day. Each delegate will arrive at Write Lines with questions and curiosity. I hope each will leave with some answers, a new question, fresh vigour and a strong line to pursue in their individual practice.

With this in mind, acclaimed playwright Rob Evans whets our appetite by telling us why he writes for young audiences…

Children have not yet had the link between their imagination and their physicality broken. They move and fidget and squirm, and if you get it right they lock on tight to your play with eyes as wide as saucers and they really, really watch. This is so satisfying to me as a writer because it’s how I feel when I’m writing.

Writing is a visceral thing; it can make me cry or explode with laughter. I think this very strong physical reaction is why I work a lot on plays that get performed to young people and their parents and teachers.

The reaction of young audiences in turn affects adults who watch the shows. Adults often think of plays for young people as a kind of babysitting service, then find they get sucked into the story. Theatre that engages both adults and young people equally is something to strive for. When you see young people and adults (their parents or teachers) enjoying the same story, the boundaries we might perceive between young and old seem made of the flimsiest stuff.

Visit the Theatre Centre website for details of the event.

Natalie Wilson and Rob Evans

Natalie Wilson and Rob Evans

Natalie Wilson became Artistic Director of Theatre Centre in 2007. Theatre Centre has been touring new writing for young audiences since 1953. Robert Alan Evans is a writer, devisor and director working across the UK. He is the winner of the TMA Award for Best Show for Young People and his work is translated and performed across Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

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