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The Polka Theatre’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’

15 October 2012 | London Calling

As the crisp weather approaches, the Polka Theatre in South Wimbledon is gearing up for its annual winter show. The theatre is unique in its sole focus on children’s theatre. London Calling speaks to Artistic Director and Director of the upcoming winter show, ‘The Wind in the Willows’, Jonathan Lloyd.

I squeeze into a ‘train compartment’ in the Polka Theatre‘s café to chat to the theatre’s Artistic Director, Jonathan Lloyd. The buzz from the café is dulled by the boxy contraption around us. A tree, created using paper pages of the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, curls towards us from a nearby wall.

Jonathan grins as I peer around: “The building around us is such an important part of our theatre,” he tells me, “We want Polka to be an all encompassing theatrical experience which begins before the children enter the theatre auditorium and doesn’t end when the lights go down.”

Jonathan’s vision is demonstrable in the theatre lobby next door. The room is dotted with rocking horses and display cases packed with colour and art, as well as a dressing-up box overflowing with costume. “From the moment a child walks through the door we are thinking about how we can excite them and spark their imagination using all their senses,” he says.

I watch a gaggle of overexcited school children pick over the room, tapping the display cases and clambering over the play obstacles before they are taken to the theatre upstairs. “Because of our sole focus on children’s theatre, we can control the environment so kids can come in, run around and sit on the floor,” says Jonathan.

For this year’s winter show, The Wind in the Willows preparations have included working with Wimbledon College of Art to create an exhibition to complement the show; the theatre, “gave a group of final year students from the college a brief to create a series of exhibits inspired by The Wind in the Willows.”

The resulting exhibition, ‘Messing About’, is displayed around the theatre and designed to engage children in the characters and story before they reach the theatre auditorium. Jonathan gestures to the paper tree beside us: “Just one exhibit the students have produced,” he tells me.

I ask more about the preparations for The Wind in the Willows: “We have a big responsibility,” he says, “For younger children this will be their first exposure to the performance so we need to make sure we remain faithful to the original at the same time as breathing new life into it.”

The Wind in the Willows will only be deemed a success if the children leave with a ‘buzz’ and want to come back. To achieve this buzz, every element of the show, from the script, to the music, to the set and costume must be perfect.

To meet the Polka’s high musical standards the theatre has drafted in composer, Martin Ward, whose work has been featured at the Royal Opera House.

In addition, the set and costumes are made in-house: “The time, care and design put into creating the set is very elaborate; the set then remains on stage for three months. In some theatres the children’s show has to go in on top of another set so it looks like its sharing the space – that doesn’t happen here.”

The theatre has a full-time wardrobe supervisor and costumes are purpose-made for each show. Jonathan hopes that, “the care, attentiveness and effort we put into our costumes is representative of the theatre’s general ethos.”

At heart, the theatre believes that, “children deserve the very best quality and experience.”

This attitude is reflected in the community outreach work undertaken by Polka. Jonathan says that the children I’ve seen at the theatre today are from “disadvantaged areas that wouldn’t usually be able to afford to visit – so we’ve subsidised their visit and their travel.”

Jonathan finishes by reminding me that the theatre has, “a café, a playground, a garden, a dressing up area, an exhibition area, a things-to-do reading area; we want families to stay and make the most of these facilities to turn their theatre trip into a real ‘day-out’.”

Jonathan wants local families to see the theatre as a “free resource they are welcome to use – even if they don’t have a ticket for a show!”

 

The Wind in the Willows runs from 23 November 2012 - 16 February 2013. You can buy tickets here. The show is aimed at 5 - 11 year olds with Watch with Baby performances available.

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