Just before Christmas, we visited one of our favourite places in London: Discover Children’s Story Centre, in Stratford.
The reason for our trip was One Snowy Night. Discover’s Christmas production, based on the book by Nick Butterworth, is described by Lyn Gardner of the Guardian as a ‘beautifully pitched staging of the picture book’.
Sally Goldsworthy’s production was aimed at 3-6 year olds and, after an introductory slapstick two-hander between Percy and Bob in the woods outside Percy’s cabin, the audience was ushered inside the parkkeeper’s wooden home. Unlike more adventurous interactive performances, the format of the main action was relatively traditional: children sitting at the front, on cushions, while adults perched on stool behind. All very safe, and cosy.
But then, the woodland creatures appeared. The curmudgeonly badger, cute rabbit twins, high-energy squirrel and predatory fox who kept sleepy Percy awake and took up all the space in his bed, were characterised in a way that added new depth and complexity to the picture book story. And the puppetry was cleverly done, adding convincing animation to creatures ranging in size from tiny mice to the big old badger.
Cathy Wren’s cabin was furnished with enough detail to be convincing, without causing a distraction for the little ones. Forty minutes is rather a long time for very small children to be sat on the floor, but this production managed to captivate all the crowd. The show was a lovely treat just before the holiday, and we’ll be watching with interest to see what Discover produces next.
After we’d seen One Snowy Night, we spent the rest of the day enjoying all that Discover has to offer. Although it’s a little off the beaten track, it’s a real treasure trove for children, whether or not they’re into reading. Permanent features include a trip-trap bridge that utters grunts and growls when you cross it; a crafting corner, with spoons and masks ready for decoration; a mini dancefloor, with disco lights that play a tune when you jump on them; and a good range of indoor and outdoor slides and climbing equipment.
And then, there are the interactive exhibitions. At the moment, it’s Once There Was….the Wonderful World of Oliver Jeffers, for children under 6. This really is worth a look. It began with a story, told by a ukelele-wielding Discover staff member, and then the participants were ushered through to a series of rooms decorated with scenes from Jeffers’ books, including How to Catch a Star, Up and Down, Lost and Found and The Way Back Home.
The wonderful thing about interactive art for kids is that they become the story. For children who are reluctant readers, exhibitions like this – tactile, and physically engaging in a way that books are not – can bring stories to life in the ‘real’ world. I imagine that standing in the South Pole, with dry ice steaming at your heels, would make any child want to open the picture book that the scene comes from. And, for our two who love books, going to a place where they can stand in a rocket, or sit in a rowing boat, added an extra element of magic to the tales they already love.
Once There Was… ran until 6 September 2015. We were given tickets to One Snowy Night for the purpose of this post, but all views are my own.
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.