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.