‘Little Top’, by Starcatchers and Superfan

Review from: EICC (Pleasance), Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 6th August 2019

A ring of tiny engrossed faces makes Little Top a delight for accompanying charmed adults as much as for the babies and toddlers the experience is aimed at. It’s a new intimate circus show from Ellie Dubois and her collaborator Kim Donohoe of Superfan, a partnership with Scotland’s National Arts and Early Years organisation Starcatchers. I count 20 little ones in today’s performance, and at any point I check around the circle at least half of them have their eyes fixed on the colours and movement in front of them, often many more.

I wish my nieces could be here to join in. 18-month old Rose would be one of the big girls, at the top end of the recommended age range, whilst her 7 month old cousin Amber would fit right in with the gurgling, wriggling majority, testing out their voices and their own physical skills in response to the performance and environment around them.

The trick of this delightful miniature circus is direct engagement and opportunities for individual play and discovery. The four performers, with open faces and genuine responsive warmth, are great at catching the attention of each little person around the colourful construction of a canopied tent, designed by Becky Minto. Inside a large room at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, the circular performance space is strung with soft citrus-striped bunting and gently glowing light bulbs. Its floor is covered with a soft red and infinitely wipeable slidey mat. But the 40 minute performance section is just the tasty filling in a sandwich of perfectly considered parent-baby entertainment.

When I arrive at the venue I gravitate to the group of carers and babies chilling on the floor of the EICC foyer. Colourful playmats, abacus toys and large endangered animal plushies are supplemented with jungle pattern cushions for the grown-ups. This area of formal foyer space has been fully claimed for the needs of its smallest citizens and their guardians.

When the time comes to begin, we’re led by performer Laura Bradshaw to leave our shoes and large belongings in safe canvas storage boxes in a separate room, and assured that the babies are never expected to be silent or still during the performance. The only rules are to try and keep them behind the dotted line that marks the centre of the performance ring from our outer ring of floor cushions, and to refrain from taking photos.

Calming music and the colourful environment feel magical, as the four performers gradually introduce themselves and their simple props to the watching tots. Smiling, gentle eye-contact is made with all the babies around the circle. A ball appears and is shown to each individual, moving round at eye-level for each child, capturing attention to follow its movements. A development into throws and catches, and the addition of further balls, is well-paced to ensure interest is held. Arron Sparks introduces juggling tricks around the circle, and in later sections mesmerises his young audience with rings, and with a yoyo. He gauges brilliantly how close the toy can spin to individual youngsters and the reactions of the babies throughout the show is as wonderful to the adult audience as the circus skills on show are to their tiny charges. (In fact, the circus skills are also impressive to the gathered grown-ups. These are all talented performers.)

Arron Sparks in ‘Little Top’ IMAGE: Jassy Earl

The other two cast members are acrobats Gabbie Cook and Nat Whittingham, who work together and individually to demonstrate playful movement possibilities to the little ones just beginning to discover their own. Nat’s peek-a-boo games with a giant blue exercise ball are a particular favourite, as are the soft mirrorball stars that accompany Gabbie’s floating floor choreography, more familiar to the babies perhaps as ‘tummy time’.

The performance section wraps up with glowing balls that pattern the darkened air and then are rolled out to invite personal engagement from the surrounding children. The babies are at last invited over the dotted line to play with versions of the toys they’ve watched in the show, facilitated wonderfully by the four performers who continue to surprise and delight the tiny explorers with one-on-one interactions.

This show should be part of every child’s early development. And every parent’s. As we leave, we find feedback forms tucked into our shoe storage boxes, and the questions are particularly interesting: as well as asking how the adults felt their children enjoyed and engaged with the performance, the adults are also asked about how they felt connected to their child during the performance, and whether they felt inspired. I imagine the company are getting back a lot of ‘Strongly Agree’ boxes ticked.

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