It is always a humbling privilege to be present at an Oily Cart show. The company, founded by Tim Webb and his colleagues in 1981, has long specialised in shows for very young children and young people with specific, profound and multiple disabilities. Kubla Khan – which is a masterclass in sensitive, sensory, immersive theatre – is the company’s first show for deaf/blind children.
The tour started at Linden Lodge School, “a sensory and physical college” in Wimbledon which is, in itself, as stunningly beautiful environment. Imagine, once you’ve passed the sensory play areas and scented gardens, a gentle space, a studio theatre of sorts, usually used for physical activities and drama. Today it is set up as a ship with sails and a semi-circular deck cum play station ( design by Holly Murray) at which the audience sits ready to feel the water, touch the sand and experience wind as the cast flap fans. Music is provided by Sheema Mukherjee on sitar and gong and on trombone by actor-musician Stephanie Rutherford and there’s a lot of evocative singing, often in harmony. Max Reinhardt is the musical director and co-composer.
The show accommodates a maximum of six deaf-blind participants and their carers with inclusive room for a sibling or two. Focused as it is, Oily Cart never marginalises children without disabilities and that’s a lovely touch too, The rest of us – director, Tim Webb, a couple of other observers and I along with, on the day I saw it, a four person BBC crew collecting material for both radio and TV features - sit outside the action-containing crucible and look in.
Webb is adept at using story telling in a quasi-spontaneous way. Yes, some of Coleridge’s familiar Kubla Khan words are woven into the text and songs – and, of course, the music of the poetry (“caverns measureless to man”) adds to the escapism as we set off on the famous journey. Each of the four cast members (plus stage manager Deanne Jones), dressed in cobalt blue with shiny, silly red and gold bits, focus on the individual children in the audience, allowing them to hear and see water “raining” on transparent umbrellas over their heads, feeling ice cubes on their foreheads or tasting the sweetness of the orient – and it’s all handled with warmth, vibrance and sensitivity. At the end, the whole cast sings a song for each child – whose name is included in it and that’s a stroke of genius. This Kubla Khan is much more about playing make believe together than passive watching and listening.
As so often at shows for young people with special needs there was one girl who, when it came to it, baulked at going into the playing space. In the end she sat with her carers in the doorway and took part in her own way, included as much as the cast and company staff could possibly manage. Anyone who works in this sort of theatre has to be very flexible and able to think improvisatorily on his or her feet. I often marvel – and this must be the seventh or eighth Oily Cart show I’ve seen - at how they manage to rehearse it without an audience present.
Other highlights of this profoundly moving 55 minutes of theatre include the delightful Griff Fender, an Oily Cart regular, impressively skilled at making contact with children whatever their communication issues. Stephanie Rutherford has a striking way of talking soothingly with her eyes even when she’s playing her trombone and Katherine Gray’s warm, mellifluous, resonant voice as both speaker and singer is worth travelling a long way to hear.
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