There Was an Old Woman

Tim Webb
Oily Cart
Southbank Centre (Blue Room)

There Was an Old Woman

“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
She whipp'd all their bums, and sent them to bed.”

So began the earliest printed version of the old nursery rhyme—but there aren’t any bottoms beaten at Oily Cart’s show which features a much more kindly version of the Old Lady with a boot bursting with babies. This is a show inspired by shoes, aimed at three- to five-year-olds and their families and friends, that presents a lively Scots grandma who needs the audience’s help.

As usual with Oily Cart work, cast members come out to meet their audience establishing relaxed and friendly contact before the show begins. They have black and white striped skirts and trousers that have a clownish air and a dreadlocked guitarist wears a black top hat with a feather in it.

A circus-like hoarding in the shape of big cut-out boots strung with lights with red high-heeled-shoe-shaped pennants flying above it to sets a joyful mood and there’s a red round carpet for little ones to sit on with some black sofas round for those who may want to sit on grown ups’ laps.

There’s a lot of admiring of everybody’s shoes to lead the chatter and prepare things for the story but the children are asked if they are all ready for the story and more performers enter. One has a necklace of white flip-flops, another has shoes instead on their hair ribbon where it should be a bow and—look at what they have on their feet.

No one has a proper pair. The lady has a ballet shoe on one foot (she points it like a real ballerina) but a big boot on the other; the man has a flip-flop mismatched with a snorkeler’s flipper and now you notice that the musician has a trainer-style boot (with bells on) on one foot and the other in a mop bucket that he sometimes uses as his rhythm section.

That’s when, with the help of one of the children, a whole pile of odd shoes is discovered—but before there is a chance to go through them a motorcar comes toot-tooting in. It’s boot-shaped and the grey-haired driver in her bright red outfit turns out to be the eponymous Old Woman. That pile of shoes is ones that she’s collected from all those odd shoes that she finds lying around.

If you kick them off without putting them away, she thinks you don't want them. They make perfect beds, you see, for all her boot babies. Everyone helps sort through the pile to match up missing shoes and then they’re asked to help to take the others back to the Old Woman’s house, for they won’t all fit into the boot of her boot-car.

Now everyone becomes involved as, each carrying a shoe, they take a journey in processions, sometimes dancing to meet a growly bear (who has got two bear feet, even though there’s a shoe on one of them), wake a sleeping princess, pass through woods and apple-scented orchards, take a nap on lavender-filled pillows under a giant dark duvet and eventually reach the Old Woman’s house where her children need those shoe-beds.

They then make (pretend) porridge, feed the tiny token babies, rock them to sleep and then, can quietly creep away.

Like all Oily Cart’s work, it is a series of close encounters and sensory experiences, striking images and lovely, lively music. The company carefully devises its shows to match specific age groups and create work especially for youngsters on the autistic spectrum with sensory deprivation or learning difficulties.

The audience I saw it with included some children younger than this show for 3-5 year-olds was aimed at, but I was impressed by how the company coped with that and especially by the way in which a couple of wheelchair-confined children were included, with even special sections of duvet for them as well as the individual involvement the company aims at while there was at least one child at the lower end of the autistic spectrum who was clearly enjoying it although it was not designed for him.

The performers are old Oily hand Griff Fender, musician Lewis Floyd Henry, Susannah Austin and Ellie Griffiths, the design by Claire de Loon, music direction by Max Reinhardt and Tim Webb is the director. This company’s special skills are to be valued for they are at the forefront of provision for the very young and those with special needs but great fun for all their audience too.

There are two daytime performances each day in this Southbank season (not December 25-26 or January 1) and There Was an Old Woman will be touring nationally next year.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton