Grass

Choreography by Rosie Heafford
Second Hand Dance in association with the Unicorn
Unicorn (Clore Theatre)

Helena Webb and Keir Patrick in Grass Credit: Zoë Manders
Helena Webb in Grass Credit: Zoë Manders
Helena Webb and Keir Patrick in Grass Credit: Zoë Manders

Grass is a show that's aimed at young children aged 4 and upward. It lasts just under an hour and I saw it with a school party of real youngsters.

As they go into the theatre, each gets a greeting from the performers and is directed to (artificial) grass mats to sit on three sides of the thrust stage, behind which are benches for any accompanying adults.

The performance area is backed by stacked nurserymen’s trays, a few potted plants in a top one, and a vitrine displaying the tunnels of an animal’s underground home between them. Rolled turf lies on the ground. There is birdsong in the air. Then there is a “Ting!” and the show has started.

Performers Helena Webb and Keir Patrick roll out lines of turf, acknowledge each other and exchange looks with the audience. Another “Ting!” they roll out more. Already a vital audience contact has been established. As they crawl over the turf and smell it, press their ears to its surface, listen, we are almost doing it with them and concur with them as they say, “Grass!”.

Now they are lying with legs up in the air, feet making circles of excitement, crawling and wriggling on the grass and doing funny four-legged walks like animals that live between its blades.

A move that one makes is matched immediately by the other dancer as a voice begins to tell us facts about the grass. It covers 20% of the Earth’s surface and comes in lots of different kinds, some big and strong enough to build a house with. There are lots of things that you can use it for, not just lawns: grass skirts for instance, and some kinds are good for eating for us, not just for cows.

This is a show that combines dance, mime and music, instruction and game playing. It introduces lots of creatures that live among the grass, beneath it or in the air above it. The dancer-actors arrange their bodies and move to suggest the different species; sometimes it takes them both together to be a giraffe, for instance.

There is a sequence where the dancers act out an animal to each other and then it opens up to become an audience guessing game. There are some hard ones—none of the children knew stag beetles, though they got quite close, but they had scorpion in no time.

Sometimes an animal may appear in puppet form, sometimes it may be a projected image: a caterpillar bending its body upward and then stretching to make its way across the potting shed boxes, a flutter of moths across a dark sky.

A tiny worm seen first as a life-size wiggle of light, is magnified into a cloth tube puppet manipulated by Keir Patrick and then is joined by an enormous worm that’s a lycra-smoothed Helena Webb (labelled Worm 2, in case there is anyone in the audience not as bright as all the others). Did you know that worms don’t have eyes but do have lots of hearts?

Ants in the shape of projected animations scurry across every surface, then emerging human-size in a conflict that turns into a lively dance and has the whole audience sitting body jiving. When bees become the subject, a puppet bee buzzes his way from one audience knee to another and turns human-size to demonstrate the dance with which they show where the best nectar is.

Music by James Marples and Amir Shoenfeld, Ben Walden’s video animations and Sarah Gilmartin’s multi-cued lighting and Sarah Booth’s design all play an important part in making this show work: and work it does superbly. Helena Webb and Keir Patrick bring it just the right mix of personality and performance and it is well-matched to its target age group whilst still engaging for the adults in the audience.

The show proper gets enthusiastically applauded but the experience isn’t quite over: there’s a little further exploration as the nurseryman boxes are taken from the setting and with the audience in groups each gets the chance to explore the creatures or fruits and seeds inside them (in plastic simulation). For older children, that might be a bit of a let down not to have real creepy crawlies but imagination has been stimulated and the youngsters seemed to love it.

Grass will be on a national tour from March to May that will include some other London dates.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton