We recently saw The Quiet Tree, a theatrical introduction to Traditional Irish music at The Ark, as part of Trad Fest. The creator, Thomas Johnston, has been developing the show for the last few years, and this incubation process has really paid off.
The interactive performance is structured as a journey, with Thomas inviting the audience to travel across a vast landscape of rivers and mountains and trees to Whistleberry Forest, where a few of his animal friends are waiting to meet us. There is Sorlaigh the Snail, who spins a silver web to catch us; Faoilan the Frog, who has a funky dance to share with us; and Orna the Owl, who we have to coax down from her treetop hideaway.
The music harnesses harp, whistle, piano and a small amount of percussion to create the forest’s magical atmosphere . Children are given the opportunity to play along and interact with a few sensory objects from the set, which is colourful and visually engaging. Johnston has a gentle but affirmative manner and he managed to keep the audience, which ranged from 0-5, engaged throughout.
Music from The Quiet Tree has been released as a CD too, and my kids have been enjoying reliving the show in the back of the car. They were especially tickled by the bonus track, which Johnston cut on the morning of the first performance in response to restlessness among the debut audience; just the sort of care and attention he pays to his young audience, who always need you to be flexible.
If The Quiet Tree plays locally again, we will definitely return to Whistleberry Forest. In the meantime, if you are not Dublin-based, it is touring regionally throughout February and March. Altrenatively you can get a taster for the music and buy the CD at https://whistleberryforest.bandcamp.com/album/the-quiet-tree-and-the-creatures-of-whistleberry-forest
So, Andersen Press have started to reissue the back catalogue of the prolific picture-book maker, David McKee. You may know him best as the creator of Elmer, the colourful elephant, who enlivens a dismal world with his patchwork pizzazz. They are classic first books for children, but my kids didn’t care for him or his various jungle friends.
One day, however, the four year-old picked up a book called Melric and the Dragon at the local library, and we realised there was a whole other side to McKee: one fuelled by adventure and sorcery, with dragons and bad wizards, and pink poodly pets called Troons. A few of the characters looked familiar to my eye, and, all of a sudden, I could see my own childhood favourites, King Rollo and Mr Benn, peering out from the busy illustrations at me.
Luckily, supplying our fetish is easy. Many of the titles from both series of books are available in these snazzy new editions. And on a rainy day, we stick on YouTube and watch Mr Benn, McKee’s most imaginative adventure transform himself into a gladiator, an astronaut, a caveman, an acrobat, and I transform into a better, six year-old version of myself.
We were down at Baboro Children’s Arts Festival in Galway recently to see The Shape of Things, a new offering from bilingual Branar Theatre designed for an early years audience, 0-2. I was supposed to go to a sold-out show in the late afternoon with my 2.5 year old but the 4.5 year old managed to persuade the ushers to find an extra ticket for us.
The show is performed in a beautiful bespoke tent, with every surface softly textured in a variety of tactile fabrics and the canopy strung with spongy spheres and cubes. The environment was sufficiently immersive to divert the young audience’s entire attention, although there were about 10 too many bodies in the small space. [Yes, I know, one of this extra bodies belonged to me.] My own experiences running Baby Book Club at local libraries has compounded my belief as a critic that small numbers – maximum 12 – are paramount for the optimal success of work for this age group. Apart from making the infants and toddlers more comfortable, it also allows the performers to create a more genuine interactive environment.
The Shape of Things creates a loose narrative around shapes and the concepts of same/different. The show relies on gesture as much as language, and repetition is key to the show’s effective communication. The performers had open faces and an expansive outreach towards the young spectators, but if felt like they were limited slightly by the tight structure and educational focus. It would have been a more enriching environment for the young viewers if they were given the opportunity to interact at an earlier stage in the show, whether that was through the performers manipulating the materials but allowing them to touch or guiding them through the various tasks that they repeat. With smaller audience numbers, this sort of interactive spontaneity is much more achievable, and I think it makes the real difference between a good and an excellent experience.
The children did get to play at the end, although the materials were slightly different and my kids both still wanted to touch the fuzzy mobiles and have a turn throwing a ball into the cave.
I saw The Shape of Things mid-way through its premiere run, and I would highly recommend it. It was really good, but with a bit more polishing and consideration of capacity, it could be great.
Branar are currently touring the work in Scotland, but there should be an opportunity to see the work Ireland in the new year. Don’t worry, I will keep you posted.
The endlessly inventive theatre company Collapsing Horse have produced their first play for 4-6 year-olds.
Director Dan Colley uses puppetry and animation to tell the story of a young boy and his star-loving grandfather who together, with their telescope, explore space from a distance. One day Conor’s grandfather decides to make a rocket, but by the time he is finished, he is too frail for an adventure, so Conor must take up the mantle and head off into space, to the end of the universe, on his own.
The show is primarily non-verbal, and the pace is slow. The swirling stars and spinning planets that provide the animated backdrop are mesmeric, but my 4 (and three-quarters!) year-old found the abstract nature of the story-line and the telling to be a frustrating combination. A good 10 minutes could be shaved from the performance, and the gestures from puppeteers Manus Halligan & Maeve O’Mahony need to be larger. We saw the show on its very first outing, so hopefully the pacing issues will be resolved as it tours the country. The final ten minutes, meanwhile, when the children are invited on stage to see gravity at work are truly wonderful. We went home with our pockets full of ‘stars.’
I couldn’t help feeling, however, that the departing joy of the audience isn’t quite earned. With Dan Ford’s slow, magical soundtrack, the mood of the performance is certainly more sombre than playful. Conor at the End of the Universe is billed as an exploration of astrophysics and the wonders of the universe, but the conversations we had about the show were not about astrophysics but death. Is his grandfather dead? the child asked as Conor flew backwards through time. Is Conor dead? when he launched himself out of the spaceship into space – without a helmet! Without an oxygen tank!
We spent the car journey home talking about some of the not so wonderful realities of the universe.
Conor at the End of the Universe can be seen at Riverbank, Kildare // Oct 23rd; Linenhall, Mayo // Oct 28th – 29th; and The Ark, Dublin // Nov 9th – 13th.
Apparently the number one reason that stops people getting cultural is time. This is the rationale behind Culture Night, which encourages museums, galleries and theatres to keep their doors open after hours and allow culture-philes an opportunity to experience art on a more intimate level. The initiative celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and what started off as a small Dublin event has reached nationwide, with thousands of events scheduled across the country on September 16th.
There are so many free events on offer it can be difficult to whittle down the options into a manageable itinerary. If your kids are under 10, you also need to be realistic about how much culture they will be able to consume before bedtime. Firstly, make sure that if you plan on taking in a few events that they are in close proximity. The Smithfield Square Spectacular, for example, would make a good base, with a variety of workshops and performances to take in. Secondly, make sure to check whether the event is open or whether you need to book ahead: nothing is worse than disappointment. Lastly, I would advise taking a mercenary approach. Most museums and galleries in Ireland are free, but there are a number of excellent ones where you have to pay per entrant, making family trips quite expensive. With that in mind, here are my top tips for Culture Night in Dublin.
One of our favourite haunts, Dublinia has a host of living history events planned for Culture Night to enrich the experience of Viking life and Medieval Dublin.
A museum dedicated to life in Georgian Dublin, the servants quarters and nursery in particular are a treat for young visitors. There will be a string quartet to enhance the rarefied atmosphere on Culture Night. Not for the rowdy. It is also a stones through from the cultural hub of Merrion Square where there will be tons of events in the park, the Dead Zoo and the National Gallery.
Song of the Sea at The Lighthouse
A free screening of one of our favourite family films. A beautiful heartwarming take on an old Irish legend, suitable for all ages.
I have mixed feelings about Ireland’s only dedicated museum for children, but if you don’t want to go into the city for the night it is a good option, with lots of workshops and performances as well as the usual option to play. It will be mobbed with toddlers so arrive early.
National Wax Museum
Life-size dolls of your favourite figures from pop-culture: what’s not to love about this tacky art-form? Expert doll-makers will be on hand to talk about how the figures are made.
Bram Stoker’s Castle Dracula
An interactive theatrical tour that dramatises the life and most famous work of Bram Stoker, the Irishman who wrote Dracula. A perfect opportunity to get teenagers out of their bedrooms and excited about books. (14+ only)
My boys are still a bit young to enjoy the late-night activities, so we will be staying local: enjoying a selection of short films at the Pavilion Theatre, a workshop or two at the Lexicon, and a stroll down to Joyce’s Tower for some impromptu performances. Then I’ll be sending them home with their dad, so I can head into the city for some grown-up cultural fun.
By Michael Fewer with Melissa Doran
Inspired by the success of Irelandopedia, this is another beautifully-produced oversized book from Gill Books, which is designed to introduce young Irish readers to the natural world around them. It takes a seasonal approach, dividing its observations into sections on Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The illustrations are stunning, layering images upon each other collage-style, to create rich portrait of the natural world that is full of movement and colour.
The book is text heavy, but Michael Fewer’s language is accessible. SOme of our favourite facts included the revelation that slugs have 27,000 teeth: ‘so that’s what happened to our strawberries!’ the 4-year-old exclaimed. That Jellyfish are known as Smugairle Roin in Irish: we have adopted the translation, ‘seal snot’, for these pesky creatures.
Naturama is book to study before or after an outdoor adventure rather than to read aloud at nighttime. A few worksheets would have been a lovely addition. It is the kind of book that you will turn to many times over the year: an investment rather than an entertainment. I am really really glad we have a copy for our library.
The holidays mean we hit the road looking for cultural adventures farther afield. We have loads of trips planned in the Greater Dublin area, and a few Cork, Kilkenny and Galway journeys ahead. Here is the current hit-list in our car, to make the journeys bearable for mum and the boys. Would love to hear what gets your kids going in the car.
– The Speks: Singalong Songs From Glasses Island
A brilliant Irish compilation of nursery rhymes played trad style. The instrumental interludes are as big a hit as the familiar songs. I have gifted this CD dozens of times since I came across it earlier this year. The Speks have a live show which will be hitting the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire in September and we are very excited.
– Out The Door of the Ark
I picked up this CD by Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden randomly in the shop of The Ark. The songs are almost all animal-themed, but our favourite is Aye Aye Captain. The CD originated in a stage show, which we didn’t see,
but it remains hugely theatrical, and has my boys joining in (unusual) in perfect time (a miracle).
– The Barefoot Book of Giants, Ghosts and Goblins:
We picked this one up at the library and have had it on repeat-loan for a few months. The stories are drawn from the pantheon of world myth, and apart from the legendary conflict between Finn MacChumhail and Cu Chullain we hadn’t come across a single one of the tales before. The narration is by Jerry Nelson, a former member of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock Team and it is brilliant. We will be seeking out more from this series. Now if only they would do a compilation of their terrific toddler songs, which are available on Youtube.
– David Bowie: Space Oddity
Okay this one is my choice, but they happily go along with it. The music appeals to them, but it is the narrative thread of Major Tom that has the older boy in particular hooked. Major Tom itself is the anthem that finishes off many of our space games if Darth Vader hasn’t taken over.