Review from: Circomedia, Bristol; 21st October 2018
A zen-like haven of calm and tranquility has been laid inside Circomedia’s large performance-cum-training space. Soothing marimba plays. Sandy coloured cushions beckon. Walls that look like they’re made of paper panels mark a circle around three large boxes in the middle of the room. Over the next 45 minutes, the Japanese-inspired minimalism of Laura McEwen‘s 360° set will transform into a colourful box of delights for 2-5 year olds. Plink & Boo, from Can’t Sit Still, is a joyful circus-theatre playdate that shows us fun doesn’t have to be coded by gender.
The company have been led by artistic director Catherine Boot, but the collaborative devising work of the performers and designer is apparent in the natural and effective interplay of acrobats, musician and transforming set. The gentle sounds of melodic percussion are provided by Harriet Riley, who adds hand drums, brushed cymbals and magically tinkling bells to herald surprises or speech rhythms (the familiar refrain of ‘Tidy Up Time’ doesn’t seem to have changed since I was a nipper 30-odd years ago). The few words spoken by acrobatic performers Hobbit & Jake England-Johns are also reinforced with Makaton signing but, for the most part, their play is wordless – although peppered with giggles and growls that echo back from the young audience members.
The chatter and lively curiosity of the pre-schoolers in the venue foyer quietens as we are ushered into the performance space, with no apparent prompting from parents. Likewise, the later invitations to come and play are quickly taken up with confidence by the watching children. Attention levels are high and a friendly rapport is built from the word go with lots of smiling eye contact and judicious waving. Even when it’s time to return toys to toy boxes, I only notice one small voice of dissent that quickly calms as the action moves on. This is a company who know how to work with young children, and it’s telling that a child psychotherapist – Cathy Harwood – is credited in the programme notes (there is also a resource pack about the show’s themes available on the Can’t Sit Still website).
At the start of the show, a giant jiggling toybox opens up to reveal Hobbit and England-Johns, dressed alike in soft brown dungarees and stone-coloured t-shirts. Hobbit likes to be upside-down, all inquisitive feet and strongwoman shoulders. England-Johns likes to gracefully twist and leap, dancing like a butterfly. They lift each other in turns, the older children giggling along as Hobbit bases the taller England-Johns to stand on her shoulders. When the two stack large paper-wrapped cubes and clamber on top, a small voice is heard: ‘How will that lady get down?‘. The enquiring toddler, who had been crying as the show began, is now clearly enrapt and engaged.
A pink toybox and a blue toybox yield gender-segregated toys. What does a tiara smell like? What does a dinosaur do? An enchanting butterfly puppet incites toybox envy, and reveals the identity confusion that comes from having rules of play dictated by the boy/girl separation of commercial toy manufacture. With an invitation to ‘Come and play‘, the central space is filled by small bodies investigating cars and pushchairs, Hulk dolls and ironing boards. A 3 or 4 year old with dark curly ringlets blissfully waves a pink gymnastic ribbon in the air, before the familiar call to tidy up.
With a tinkle of the bell, a new toy appears. Which box does it belong to? The plastic figure leads acrobatic shapes that the performers emulate and, as they play together, each allows their own unique personality to shine through. The paper panels of the set become infused with colour and texture, until we all find ourselves enveloped in a rainbow canopy. A hint of a classical circus big top to my mind!
A second interactive ensemble playtime does away with delicate pink princesses for girls and blue roaring action for boys. Silver streamers, stripy hula hoops and spinning tops fill the floor. ‘A turquoise bell!’ gleefully calls the ringleted child, offering a green ballon to their baby brother.
The show I see today has been programmed specially at the venue with families who have consented to being filmed as part of a trailer – that will, if there’s any justice in the world, win Plink & Boo plenty of future bookings beyond this Autumn’s tour. In a few words after the performance, Catherine Boot characterises Can’t Sit Still as ‘A little company with big ambitions’. They have already pulled a beautiful, pertinent and engaging production out of the bag that is thoroughly age appropriate. I imagine each child will talk about this show for a long time after they get home, asking when they can go again. As I wipe away a sentimental tear at the loveliness of it all, I have much the same feeling.