Director: Paula Manning
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing earlier this year inspired very little response from the theatre community, and in fact, plays about or set in space are few and far between, primarily a genre for television and film with an extensive visual effects budget. But M-SET theatre company is an inspiration to us all with their new show for babies and toddlers which has its world premiere at the Barbican.
Welcomed to the story-telling area by facilitator and director Paula Manning, To the Moon and Back is an interactive journey into space and ultimately to the moon told through the pages of a giant book. It opens with a warm-up exercise to acclimatise the children to the changing sounds and effects they will experience through this 45-minute show, using the audience to turn the lights gently on and off with counts of three.
Soon the adventure begins and Manning – with some help from the children who mimic a pushing gesture – turns the first page of the book to reveal a rocket ship with a door to a new world. Walking through a short corridor hung with soft, coloured piping the audience enter a room full of springy planets suspended low from the ceiling which they can push and bounce around, along with lots of smaller spherical objects, some smelling of lavender, others small enough to yo-yo in your hand and all made of different materials to increase the impact of this multi-sensory experience.
Manning allows some time for free play which all the children engage in enthusiastically but subtly controls the event with counts of five and three to draw attention to Bethan Robinson, Jack Tongeman and Sian Manning’s scene design included a projected moon with “star storms” that soon fills the room with foil sheets that the children can use to create their own stories
Back in the storybook room, attention turns to the wonders of space, using yellow ping pong balls to play with sound – composed by Johnny Tomlinson – as the room is deluged in them before cunningly using the audience to tidy-up. The final page is the moon itself and small torches are distributed to allow the children to create patterns of moonlight in the darkened room before being led, this time through a silver-sheeted corridor back to the now transformed playroom.
This final section is a marvel of invention, colour and energy as the audience explores the “moon garden” with its strange “star statues” made of colanders and lights, and “shadow trees” with puppets the children can interact with. In the same section the projected moon becomes a sun before the release of bubbles creates “moon rain” allowing the children to twirl neon-striped umbrellas in the black light. But Manning and her team are not quite done and suddenly the room is a riot of colour as feathers fill the air, the audience gather under a giant parachute and a rainbow is danced into existence.
To the Moon and Back is an extraordinary experience, carefully managed to create moments of free play with an eclectic mix of materials and objects, but all perfectly aligned with the overarching space adventure story. Manning is superb at controlling the room, and, along with her team, makes everyone feel comfortable, engaged and included, while clear at all times about the next set of instructions.
There are several shows a day, each recommended for a slightly different age group to ensure the maximum comfort of the participants – evidence of the care and attention that has gone into every aspect of this visually creative and beautifully vivid show. The babies here loved every second of it, and across the 45-minutes their initial shyness is quickly dispelled. A lot of adult theatre isn’t as well considered or meaningful as this inventive production so if you’re just a few months or (ahem) a few decades old you’ll feel like you’ve been to the moon and back.
Runs Until: 21 December 2019 | Image: M-SET