Wall to wall fun on the Shoreditch trail

Where in London can you find a giant squirrel, a psychedelic snail, pigs wearing lipstick, laughing skeletons and terrifying devils, all within a ten minute walk of each other? And if there is such a place, would it be suitable for the kids?

I’m pleased to report this weird and wonderful enclave does exist, in the form of the giant, open-air, top-to-bottom, end-to-end street gallery known as Shoreditch.

Having worked – and walked – around the area for years, this constantly evolving free art exhibition captivates and surprises me every day, inspiring me to take detours to see new walls, or spend an unplanned lunch hour discovering hidden gems down little-known back streets and alleyways.

Thinking about the wonder and adventure that a street art hunt can bring, I promised myself that next time, I would take the kids along too. And that is exactly what I did.

Hopping the Overground to Shoreditch High Street, the early signs weren’t too promising; ‘Can we just go home?’ said my four-year old as the weather turned and the drizzle began, just as we exited the station. The mood changed quickly, however, as they spotted a fence full of locks right next to the station entrance. The work not of street artists but dozens of tourists and visitors to the area, locking their love right here in the heart of the East End.

Curiosity suitably aroused, we turned onto Bethnal Green Road to find a shoal of brightly coloured fish swimming all over a wall, leading us onwards towards more beautifully colourful walls towards Brick Lane. The trail had begun.

Suddenly, we spotted a giant squirrel – the work of Roa, who has painted giant animals all over the area for years. We had no choice, we had to get a closer look, so we crossed the road to Club Row. I told the story of London’s famous animal market that was once located on this very road, selling everything from rare birds, fighting dogs to monkeys and big cats. And yes, probably large squirrels too.

The squirrel pointed us in the direction of Redchurch Street, so we headed on. It was at this point that I decided not to stick to the pre-planned route I had mapped out in my head. The kids were really beginning to enjoy the hunt, so it seemed more fun to make serendipitous discoveries as one piece of art led us to another.

One of the lovely things about street art is that scale has no bearing on the success and effect of the work. We were captivated by a line of ants climbing up a wall just as much as we were when faced with 30ft high walls of rainbow swirls.

We carried on for an hour more, exploring beautifully decorated Redchurch Street and the giant Eine lettering, crossing over Shoreditch High Street to Rivington Street, where dozens of magnificent murals awaited us, including some pigs in lipstick. Beautiful.

As the rain persisted to dampen our enthusiasm, we found ourselves on Hoxton Square, right next to the perfect place to warm up; The Breakfast Club. Welcoming us with a blockbusting brunch, the all-action American diner, with it’s mismatching furniture and funny decorative quirks, proved as captivating to the kids as the walls in the surrounding area.

After eating our fill of pancakes, and with my youngest snuggled down and dozing in her buggy, we left to find the weather had brightened up, and we decided to visit the nearby Shoreditch Farm, continuing to spot street art all the way. Shoreditch Farm is fantastic nearby trove of fun. We whiled away the afternoon exploring story sheds, bug houses and a tree house big enough for adults, as well as a host of farmyard favourites. No giant squirrels here though, I’m afraid to say.

Guest post by Mark Ellis

Mark’s street art tour explored the streets surrounding Shoreditch High Street Station. Various companies offer organised tours of street art in the area, fees ranging from pay what you like up to £25.

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Arts Aloud: Family Friendly Half Term Highlights

If you’ve been too busy to organise activities and you’re panicking that half term is just around the corner, fear-not. Here’s some inspiration from across the family friendly arts scene:

THEATRE
Meeting Mr Boom! Exploring the themes of building relationships and overcoming life’s challenges, this live music and dance show is performed on an inflatable set, and then offers an irresistible opportunity to stay, play and bounce after the performance (The Albany at Deptford Lounge, 19-21 February, 12pm & 2.30pm, Admission £7, Age 3+).

50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) If you want to use half term as an excuse to strike and brave something new, this is just the ticket. Inspired by the book of the same name by Julie Spielger and Gever Tulley, acclaimed German theatre-makers Fundus Theater give your kids the chance to do it all. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and give them unimaginable tales to take back to school (Unicorn Theatre, 14-22 February, 11am & 1.30pm, Admission Adult £16, Child £10, Age 3-10)

Imagine Children’s Festival Promising to deliver over half of the programme this year absolutely free of charge, it’s never too late to plan a day out at this incredible spectacular. Check out my top picks.

EXHIBITIONS
Follow the Coloured Brick Road Inspired by the Wizard of Oz, artist Elisa Cantarelli invites you to add to her collection of coloured bricks that will sprawl across the gallery floor, connecting her various work on display. There is a free craft activity in the gallery (Recommended age 3+) plus a workshop for older kids to try their hand at her unique dotting technique (artsdepot, Exhibition 15-21 February, daily 10am-4pm, Admission free, Dotting workshop 20 February, 11am & 2pm, Admission £5, Age 8+).

Figures, Creatures and Tea, by Julia de Greff As well as some great shows topping and tailing the half term week, this vibrant collection of paintings and prints of animals include a giraffe, chickens, kittens, horses, cows, and a glorious whale plus a host of small exotic birds. To accompany the exhibition there’s a children’s gallery trail and a host of chalk boards to create their own versions of the work (Gallery @ Half Moon, 16-21 February and until 13th April, Mon-Fri 10am-6pm Sat 10am-4pm, Admission free).

Once There Was…The Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers Renowned for their rotating programme of interactive family exhibitions, this magical exhibition allows little ones to venture into the world of some of their favourite characters. A priceless opportunity to climb inside a space rocket, row a boat with a penguin or conjure up a feast from the life-size fridge. This long-running feature is one not to miss (Discover Children’s Story Centre, 16-22 February and until 6 September, Mon-Fr 10am-5pm, Weekend 11am-5pm, Admission £5, Age 3-6)


STORYTELLING
London Children’s Book Swap A great way to kick off half term, this literary initiative asks children to bring along a book that they’ve enjoyed and swap it for someone else’s recommended read. A chance to share old favourites or discover new stories, as well as make their very own bookmark (Various London venues and times, 14 February, see their Facebook page for your nearest venue or follow the event on Twitter @LDNChildBkSwap, Admission free, All ages)

Roald Dahl Picture Book Week Whether they are familiar favourites or a first-time listen, this week-long storytelling event is a fantastic chance to celebrate the genius mad-cap stories of Roald Dahl. There’s also a chance to make an animal mask (all day, drop in) inspired by the characters from the books (Discover Children’s Story Centre, 16-22 February, Various times, Admission £5 , Age 3+ and 6+).

COMEDY
Comedy Club 4 Kids Just like a normal comedy club, but with less rude bits, a greater chance of being heckled and a time of day that kids can enjoy. This unique event sees the best stand-ups and sketch acts from the UK and international circuit, do their thing for an audience of children and their families (artsdepot, 22 February, 12pm & 2.30pm, Admission £7, Age 6+. Also touring other venues nationwide. See website for details).

MAKE & DO
Family Art Days Minutes from busy Upper Street, this hidden gem of a gallery is hosting two creative family days during the half term, inspired by the work of Renato Guttuso. Kids can bring along their own favourite object or choose from a selection of weird and wonderful items to create a still life arrangement to draw. Another event invites them to add their thoughts to the interactive colour wheel and make their own spinning colour palette (Estorick Collection, 17-18 February, 11am-4pm, Admission free for children with a paying adult, Adults £5, All ages)

WORKSHOPS
Play in a Day: Chinese New Year Inspired by their resident theatrical production Yeh Shen (a Cinderella-style story from China) this Chinese New Year themed workshop introduces kids to a range of performance techniques including mime, physical theatre and improvisation (Polka Theatre, 17 February, 10.30-am-3.30pm, Admission £30, Age 5-7)

Behind the Scenes: Character Costume Making If your little one is a budding costume designer, then here’s a workshop to let their imagination run wild, with the help of a real life theatre designer. Whether their costumes are inspired by characters of their own or borrowed from their favourite stories, everyone will get the chance to show them off in a fashion show at the end of the day (Polka Theatre, 19 February, 10.30-am-3.30pm, Admission £30, Age 7-11)

INTERACTIVE
Tuttle Families If you were inspired by my feature last year around Richard Tuttle’s Turbine Hall commission I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, then you might want to return for Flock. Part of the Tuttle Families series, Flock is a free performance workshop for all ages and abilities, set to an original soundtrack and guided by dancers (Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, 14 February, 12-4pm, Admission free, Age 5+).

Ooo Mmm Open Studio If your kids prefer to lead the creativity, then perhaps instead pay a visit to the Ooo Mmm Open Studio created by artist Kate Squires, where you can create amazing art together as a family (Tate Modern, Clore Studio, 19-22 February, 11am-1pm and 2-4pm, Admission free, All ages).

Happy half term everyone, see you on the other side!

**Disclaimer: Ticketed events subject to availability at the time of press. Free events based on capacity and first come first served basis.

Review: Hackney Children’s Theatre, Variety Spectacular 2015

With freezing temperatures and grey skies, January has used up a fair few of my rainy-day activities with the family, so I was extremely excited to learn that Hackney Children’s Theatre had the perfect antidote, in the form of their annual Variety Spectacular 2015.

Every other month of the year the imposing eighteenth century St. John at Hackney Church, is transformed into a friendly pop-up theatre by local theatre company Adrenalindance. Today was a one-off, promising a crazy mix of circus, magic, mime and dance, suitable for all ages, and accessible for all wallets, with tickets priced at just £5, thanks to the host of volunteers who bring the event to fruition.

The later than billed start, left many of the young bums fidgety by the time proceedings kicked-off, and in spite of the imaginative sea-themed set and the energetic intro by Larry the Lobster (played by Mark Winstanley), the issue of the echoey acoustics in the vast space didn’t help to hold their attention until the arrival of the first act; The Mehetebellies.

Like a kids version of The Commitments, The Mehetebellies had everyone singing along to their octopus song from the surrounding cue-boards and left the young audience in awe of their musical talents, alive with violins, drums and percussion.

Next-up, Mike and Joanna (Mike Nichols Circus) mesmerised the crowd with their unique acrobatics and hand-to-hand act, including use of a giant Cyr wheel. Some shakey transitions made it not entirely comfortable to watch, but the dare-devil lifts are what made this act memorable.

All too soon it was time for a break, and there was no keeping the kids from the well-stocked cake stand, nor from the giant hula hoops and open stage to dance it all off.

Into the second half of the show, and Feet Off The Ground Dance were the perfect opener.  For many youngsters in the audience, this was likely to be their first experience of contemporary dance, and the specific art of Contact Improvisation practised by the group, silenced the recently seated crowd with their impressive physical storytelling.

Marie Andree Lemaire’s cheeky mime act was definitely one for the grown-ups, leaving more than a few little girls in the crowd heartbroken as their dad’s were led away to the stage to complete the act. Marie’s perseverance with audience participation did, however, finally pay off with a brave volunteer, game enough to help the tongue-in-cheek love story play out.

With concentration of the younger ones waning, it was a shame that the timing for the finale act Ian Marchant had suddenly started to feel like the graveyard shift. As somebody who has performed their mix of juggling, skill and trickery all over the globe, unperturbed by the rising noise levels, he soon treated us to spoon-catching, hat-tipping and even the trustee ‘table cloth’ trick, making sure that every box that in the cabaret checklist was ticked.

As an exercise in bringing the varied art of theatre to a young and diverse audience, Variety Spectacular was a triumph. In a cosier venue with slicker production, this is a format to be rivalled, with the potential to sell out multiple shows at any London fringe theatre that I have visited. Interspersing acts with audience-participation games was a fun way to keep the crowd engaged whilst the interchange of acts took place, but with so many young visitors it only served to break momentum and impart an unfair sense of chaos upon otherwise very well organised proceedings. That said, on a dreary Saturday in January, you’d be hard pushed to experience any greater theatrical variety than we were treated to, and we’ll be sure to return next year with our friends.

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Twitter: @HackneyCtheatre