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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Arts Aloud: 5 family-friendly highlights for January 2015

If the impending doom of Monday morning’s school-run is starting to ruin the precious few days that you have left with the family this Christmas, set yourself to planning mode!

January is packed with family-friendly exhibitions and events in London, and best of all, some of them are absolutely free. Perfect for those of you that had too many well-behaved children to reward this Christmas.

Here is what I’ll be up this month:

1. Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915 – 2015, Whitechapel Gallery 

Admission £13.50 (including Gift Aid donation) £11.95 (without Gift Aid)

From 15th January expect a whole lot of “mummy what’s that?” as the Whitechapel Gallery pays host to a major new exhibition tracing the history of Abstract art from 1915 to today. Promising over 100 works including paintings, sculptures, film and photographs by modern masters and contemporary artists such as Carl Andre and Aleksandr Rodchenko, the admission sounds well worth it, even if the little ones struggle to make it beyond Gallery 1.

Nearby: V&A Museum of Childhood provides the perfect space for kids to be kids, with usable rocking horses, an indoor sandpit, dolls’ houses and a life-size robot, plus a baby sensory area for the very young.

2. Variety Spectacular 2015, Hackney Children’s Theatre

Admission £5 or £16 for family of 4 (booking fee applies)

Every second month of the year, the eighteenth century St. John at Hackney Church is transformed into a family-friendly theatre by local theatre company Adrenalindance. This month’s must-see event is their annual Variety, which presents a crazy mix of circus, magic, mime and dance, plus lots of surprises. Suitable for all ages.

Nearby: Head to Victoria Park, one of London’s oldest parks, home to two playgrounds, two cafes, a skatepark and a superb splash park (summer only).

3. The Great Londoners, Hoxton Hotel, Holborn

Admission free

Last chance to see Nicholas Goodden’s street photography exhibition which captures the quirks and diversity of Londoners in all their glory, going about their daily life.

Nearby: Coram’s Fields is a unique Central London playground and park, including two large sandpits, an adventure play area with aerial slide and a paddling pool in the summer months.

4. Mapping The City, Somerset House (New Wing)

Admission free

Showcasing a range of work from established and emerging artists, Mapping The City represents the intimate and unique relationship that graffiti and street artists have with their home cities, through their own cartographic representations, ranging from literal to  the highly abstract.

Nearby: Head to Covent Garden Piazza to soak up the free entertainment, everything from street performers to free lunchtime opera.

5. Cirkus Spectakular, Half Moon Theatre

Admission £6

Completely unrelated to the Hackney event with a similar name, this one-off magical theatrical production by Angel Heart Puppet Theatre brings together the colours and sounds of Eastern Europe to tell the touching story of Pavlo and his quest to feel like he ‘belongs’.  Recommended age: 4+.

Nearby: Stepney City Farm gives children a chance to meet a range of farm animals  as well as hosting other events and activities from learning to grow food, to arts and crafts.

Don’t forget, if you’ve seen something interesting on in January and you aren’t brave enough to go it alone, get in touch. I’m happy to do a test run and report back for you.

Happy New Year!