Tim Webb
Oily Cart
Arts Depot

Griff Fender and Katherine Gray as Grandpa and Grandma Bird Credit: Deanne Jones
Rear: Griff Fender and Deanne Jones; front: Katherine Gray and musician Kadialy Kouyate Credit: Suzi Corker
Deanne Jones as the Mother with the Human Baby puppet Credit: Suzi Corker
Griff Fender and Katherine Gray in the babies and toddler's version Credit: Suzi Corker

This is another delightful presentation from Oily Cart that is being offered in three slightly different version specifically aimed at particular audiences: babies and toddlers (up to 2 years old) young children of 3 to 5 years and a relaxed version for 3- to 8-year-olds with special performances for those with learning difficulties or on the autism spectrum. I saw the young children version.

Inspired by the old lullaby “Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top”, Hush-a-Bye takes its young audience up into the tree tops where eggs are hatching in cosy nests and chicks learn to fly and where a baby is discovered in a treetop cradle.

It is a show that is immersive from the start. As they go into the performance space, the audience are greeted by the performers in their colourful costumes who encourage them to inspect the clusters of colourful nesting boxes that they are passing. Some of them have their openings masked by translucent screens like drawn curtains but each group has one, at just the right height for a small child to look in, where there are eggs in a nest, sometimes a cluster, sometimes one big one.

There is no hurry to rush through, time to check out each one of them before reaching a welcoming, brightly-lit performance space encircled by painted leaves, leaves on the floor, leaves overhead. A semi-circle of benches is set for the children and immediate carers to sit on (more seats further back for other adult companions). The curved table in front of them is laid with bowls and a large leaf for each of them.

It isn’t just the layers of scalloped-edged fabric looking like feathers and the shoes that give them clawed feet that tell you the performers are birds; it's the way that they are moving, bobbing bird-like. These birds can talk and they get the children in the audience to help them raise baby birds from hatching to flying.

It is a very simple story, its enactment accompanied by music played by Kadialy Kouyate on his kora. This multi-stringed West African instrument, made from hide stretched over half a calabash, is halfway between lute and harp. Its plucked strings are given rich resonance and the sound is delightful. Some of the music, composed by Max Reinhardt and Kadialy Kouyate, draws on Kadialy’s own Mandika culture, and offers simple songs that the audience can join in.

When everyone is settled in Grandpa Bird (Oily Cart old-hand Griff Fender, an actor who seems able to read children’s minds his communication skills are so developed) and Grandma (Katherine Gray, another experienced Oily Cart performer) decide it is time to get things ready for the young birds that will soon be hatching.

“What is the best way to make a nest?” they sing. “To keep the birds warm in their nest we need something fluffy,” and they find feathers and twists of fluffy of wool with which everyone can line the bowl in front of them. Next comes glitter, “a shiny thing to make you sing,” then “something that smells lovely: flowers or herbs.” Texture, sparkle to catch the eye, scents, a succession of sensory experience to enjoy as participants handle each of them.

Now there is a noise: a cracking. It is the eggs hatching and new-hatched yellow chicks made of stuffed fabric are brought out to sit in each nest or be held by a carer. They can be noisy, especially if everyone goes “tweet tweet” which leads into a song and dance before the grandparents think its time to feed bird babies. They ask the children what birds eat. “Hay,” says one, “meat,” another—and so that’s what everyone pretends to feed them until Grandpa thinks of worms. Then it is trying to catch those worms as they pop up, or rapping on the table to bring them to the surface.

Clouds appear like big white pillows, there’s wind (waving big leaves makes it), the sound of rain, those leaves each child has become umbrellas and a wetness falling, but when the sun comes the leaves can shake dry and there are towels to pat dry bird babies with more singing and dancing.

Now there’s a new discovery, something dropping through the branches. Underneath the leaves there is a human baby. Now what does it need? Another question for the children. “A dummy!” says one and pretends to give it; “milk!” says another: it is provided. Baby needs a nest to rest so everyone gives contributions of things to line it, but this baby doesn’t want to sleep yet. It wants to fly, so birds and baby are set flying.

It gets darker, the moon appears and it is time for a lullaby with birds all snuggly in their nests, though in this version, “When the bough breaks, the baby will fly!” But she doesn’t have to fly because her mother (Deanne Jones, who has already been seen as an extra bird) is here looking for her. Mum says she is called Imogen and takes her home. It is home time for everyone too. Time to tuck baby birds in their nests with little green blankets and creep out very quietly so that they can sleep.

It is impossible to review Oily Cart’s work like an ordinary show. I can only describe it and say that as an observer it is fascinating to watch the children’s pleasure and involvement and that in this production the kora music is an especial delight.

The toddler version is similar but simpler and sits the children on the floor within the circle with a giant egg to hatch out and the special needs version is adapted to match each particular audience.

After this Finchley season, Hush-A-Bye will tour. Dates so far announced are: 13 to 14 January, The Burton Taylor Studio at Oxford Playhouse; 16 to 20 January, Theatre Clwyd, Mold; 24 to 28 January, Gulbenkian, Canterbury; 2 to 3 February, Stratford Circus Arts Centre, London; 7 to 11 February, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry; 14 to 18 February, Polka Theatre, London.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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