Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale - an intense family drama - might seem off-limits to those of a very young age. Yet with In A Pickle, acclaimed children’s company, Oily Cart, have created with the RSC a charming, unique, multi-sensory production to engage audiences of 2-5 years.
Writer/director Tim Webb has wisely presented the second, lighter half of the original: abandoned baby princess Florizel is found by a Shepherd in Bohemia, and is eventually returned to Sicilia to her grieving father and (supposedly) dead mother. But a complex linear plot is transformed into something altogether more experimental, ironically making it far more suitable for toddlers. It is a poignant tale of loss and belonging, and at each step the audience are invited to help solve the baby’s parentage.
In the Unicorn Theatre’s bright atrium, a troupe of gentle, “baa-ing” wooly sheep with soft country-style accents invite us to Shepherdess, “Baaa-bara’s” sheep-shearing party. They hand out “sheepy ears” and straw hats, gradually turning our audience into little sheep and shepherds.
Now all committed cast members, once inside the darkened theatre things only gets more exciting. Audience benches are bordered by a soft, green grassy fabric. Fresh herbs are handed out for smelling (and eating!). This is the first course in a sensory banquet, followed by explosions of bubbles and the unfurling of soft rolls of wool from a wooden sheep being sheared. We are even treated to personal sea storms. All to the backdrop of enchanting live violin and quite beautiful folk singing from the cast as they trot, joke and dance round the benches, gently ensuring each child is involved.
The players are subtle, skillful and magnetic, my favourite performance being Fionnuala Dorrity’s tipsy French boat. Drawing on experience with very young and disabled children, Oily Cart delight their toddler audience without driving them wild. Spontaneous verbal contributions are smoothly incorporated. And the multi-layered performance ensured that something excited each child - my slightly shy, sceptical nephew was most impressed by the bundled baby’s lettuce hair, and the King and Queen’s fruit cloaks and vegetable crowns.
The combination of storytelling, dressing up, dance and puppetry was simple, clever and inventive, the harmonious performance style making it far more than the sum of its parts. In A Pickle is theatre at its playful best: destined to create strong, dreamlike memories of Shakespeare’s landscapes in the young audience - something older fans could love too.