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.