Dot, Squiggle and Rest

Joy Haynes and composer Elspeth Brooke
Polka in collaboration with the Royal Opera House
Polka Theatre

Dot, Squiggle and Rest
Dot, Squiggle and Rest Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Dot, Squiggle and Rest Credit: Stephen Cummiskey
Dot, Squiggle and Rest Credit: Stephen Cummiskey

This piece of music theatre, a collaboration between Polka and the Royal Opera, is aimed at the very young: ages 2-4. It is presented in Polka’s Adventure Theatre, an intimate shoes-off environment where the audience can sit or lie on a comfortably cushioned carpet as well as on bench seats with their grown-ups.

Dot, Squiggle and Rest is designed to intrigue and entertain and intended to also draw young audiences into the world of music, dance and indeed opera. It doesn’t have a narrative but plays to a young mind’s inquisitiveness and delight in recognising something as it parades a succession of interesting images and surprising sound.

As the audience enters this little theatre, the performers are seen sitting and lying behind a gauze: three girls in white, one of whom has a cello. Their rather amorphous costumes suggest early 20th-century ideas of Grecian dance, not the sort of clothes mum or your friends wear.

There is a squawk: is it from the stage or the audience? A hand reaches out to the cello, the music begins with cello and soprano and one girl starts to dance. Indeed it’s in that pseudo Grecian style, quite what small children tend to do when flitting around to classical music. Then a white spot appears on the gauze—and then more dots. The dancer tries to catch one but it disappears and soon all three girls are trying to catch them.

After the cast have come round the sides of the gauze to the front of it, the dots turn to squiggles. These simple projections are just the beginning of a sequence of images that make a major contribution to engaging the audience’s interest.

With the gauze hauled upwards to make a billowing sky, the set is pushed part and sections pulled or pressed out to become body parts or complete life forms to facilitate animal impersonations and puppetry for the children to identify. What look like cardboard boxes turn into a house or a tent to hide in, or even gaping bird bills that open and close to match the singer.

The music makes no concessions for a young audience; it’s a long way from pop song or jingle. The lyrics are sparing: an “Hello” when the gauze has gone, a spoken “Who are you?” and a few lines of song about what a nice day it is, a comment of “Quite” and a “Ho, ho, ho!”. The singing is more about sound than words and meaning. There is lovely moment in an underwater sequence when the cellist (by now mounted on a move-around truck) does fish-like pop-pops with her mouth to tie in with a swimming fish shape.

The visual invention is first-rate thanks to designer Michalis Kokkoliadis, animator Graeme Hawkins and lighting designer Azusa Ono’s contributions. Bugs chase each other on a maze of paths that cavort across boxes and background. A trio of moths on a stretched cloth start to multiply. The dancers pull rays of white ribbon across the stage and pluck them like cello strings as more multiply in projection. Deep sea can turn into dark sky; are those bubbles or stars?

There is always something new to look at; the tots in the audience were enjoying recognizing creatures and things and one little girl started dancing but attention was intermittent. Had the performance really made enough connection with the audience?

The performers are in a way playing games like children but are the children meant to identify with them? Their costumes aren’t like what the children themselves wear. The cast changes over its run. Not all actors are good at capturing their own inner child.

At the performance I saw Lorea Burge was the dancer and she seems to be able to do this. Zosia Jagodzinska on cello sounds gorgeous and gets moments when she is able to make eye contact and connection with them but, though Sarah Dacey is a fine soprano the score doesn’t offer the familiar or make her feel like another child. Though she plays to the audience she’s not childlike; there is a touch of the adult self-consciously pretending rather than real complicity—and a very grown-up hairstyle makes her more auntie than playmate.

Not only is there no vestige of story—and for this age group it could be exceedingly simple, a succession of events or interaction—but there is no creation of character to help the actor reach out to the audience. At forty-minutes long, this left some of the audience a little bit restive, though they were soon involved again when allowed to interact post performance: the performers joined them with some “magic” boxes in which they could hear music.

Not a complete success then, but well worth doing and fun for the grown-ups as well as the children. There is lots to enjoy.

Polka’s Artistic Director Peter Glanville has a penchant for opera. When he was at the Little Angel Theatre he was keen to experiment with puppet opera. This is surely a starting point for future developments.

Perhaps an injection of a little more humour would be helpful and, as an introduction to opera, surely it shouldn’t be a solo voice, for opera is music drama, nor should it be exclusively female.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton