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Review: Small Wonders (Bernie Grant Arts Centre)

Punchdrunk's latest show for children runs as part of LIFT

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Liz Watts-Legg and Miranda Heath
© Stephen Dobbie

It would be hard to count the number of times I've sat down on the floor to watch a kids show and experienced not much more than a simple hour of storytelling. Actor in chair, kids on the carpet, 60 minutes of a wholesome narrative. So it was with slight dismay that I hunkered down with a group of 29 five to six year-olds on the carpet for Punchdrunk's latest show, as Liz Watts-Legg's Nanny Lacey smiled benignly out at us in her lovely knitted cardigan.

But this is Punchdrunk, of course, and I should have remembered that whatever your idea of a kids show, their version will likely bust it out of the water. And Small Wonders really does. The immersive company's winning design and soundscape and its ability to stage an epic adventure, are all a perfect fit for creating a show for children. If your sprogs ever were iffy about the existence of magic, they won't be after seeing this piece.

In Nanny Lacey's little flat – re-created down to the very last higgledy piggledy detail in a space somewhere hidden in the Bernie Grant Arts Centre – Nanny and her daughter Bella are welcoming a group of children. The authorities are trying to re-home Nanny – she's too old and a little too mad to be living on her own, they say. She's decided to get some children round so that she can tell them her tales and relive her memories. ‘You have the best imaginations,' Nanny explains to the group. Nanny is a miniaturist, but not in the perfect doll's house way you might think. She takes bits and bobs, recycles rubbish and turns it all into beautiful, quirky scenarios that, to her at least, represent very real memories (even though she's made them all up in her head).

It's about half way through Nanny's sweet but slightly boring wittering, that – to the absolute astonishment of all the kids on the carpet – the fridge bursts open. 'The shrinking machine!' Nanny exclaims. The children look on agog until they realise we all have to go into the fridge to shrink. In we descend into spooky darkness, until we arrive inside one of Nanny's miniatures, re-created with acute detail in larger-than-life, Punchdrunk style. It's totally thrilling and, certainly for the five year-olds, more than a little scary.

I probably don't need to explain the levels of excitement expressed by the class I experienced Small Wonders with: it was off the scale. Several of them kept turning to me to say: 'It's magic!' or 'I'm scared!' whilst smiling gleefully. And though there were one or two unsure of whether to push on through the darkness, with a little gentle cajoling from teachers (plus the appearance of a torch) even the really frightened ones plucked up the courage. They were very glad they did.

By the end, they were all breathlessly delighted about what they had seen as well as – crucially – achieved. Small Wonders makes the whole group work together, showing what can be done with team work. And the central message, about using your imagination – and how much can be made out of very little – is inspiring. It may be Small Wonders, but it's a big joy.