It's Child's Play for Replay

A new theatre piece produced specifically for toddlers, Babble brings a touch of magic to the Pick 'n' Mix Festival

That tired old marketing catchphrase ‘something for everyone’ takes on real meaning in the context of this year’s Pick 'n’ Mix Mini Festival at the new Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast.

Since 2007, this lively showcase of previews, staged extracts and rehearsed readings has been all about keeping a few steps ahead of what’s going to be happening in the performing arts, with aspiring writers rubbing shoulders with established names, young companies lining up alongside the big guns and punters queuing up to take part.

This year Pick ’n’ Mix has a ritzy new home in the state-of-the-art splendour of The MAC, whose forerunner, the shabby but much-loved Old Museum Arts Centre, is where the whole idea originated. The ‘something for everyone’ element comes in the shape of an extraordinarily eclectic weekend-long programme.

This includes Irish language theatre from Aisling Ghear, a music-theatre adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, a new play in development directed by the distinguished writer Owen McCafferty, and a brand new piece for babies – yes, babies.

'I passionately believe that children deserve to have their creativity nurtured from the earliest possible age,' says Anna Newell, artistic director of Replay Theatre Company, which has been producing theatre for young people for the past 25 years. 'We recently started work on Babble, our latest production, whose target audiences is babies aged zero to 18 months.'

Newell views making work for the youngest members of society as no more of a challenge than producing original theatre for older audiences. 'It’s always a risk,' she admits. 'You never know how any audience is going to react. In this age group, we’ll be facing a very honest audience. I’ve no doubt they’ll let us know, loud and clear, if they don’t like it.

'Before going down this road, I read a lot about child development and strategies like intensive interaction and saw a lot of work for early years audiences. Most importantly, hands-on research in a nursery setting is built into every early years project we’ve done. Being around your audience in their own everyday environment is the most useful thing of all. You couldn’t possibly go into it cold.'

In 2011, Replay created a piece for toddlers entitled Wobble. The response from their young audience was encouraging. A movement-based piece, it was created in collaboration with the Assault Events company and developed with young children at a nursery in Limavady.

'This time around, we’re taking the age group down another level and we’re all very excited about it,' adds Newell. 'Again, we’re using our tiny audience members as artistic collaborators and that is tremendously inspiring.

'The core of Babble is what we’re calling a "vocal wonderland", produced by four female singers, performing in close harmony. It will all be wrapped around beautiful video projections from Conan McIvor, who did the amazing visual effects on our last show, Marianne Dreams (watch the video above).'

Over the years, Newell has built up a close-knit team of collaborators, among them award-winning composer David Goodall, with whom she has worked, on and off, for 22 years. Together with singers Victoria Armstrong, Ruby Campbell, Susan Davey and Colette Lennon, they have been in and out of Lil Butterflies nursery in Barrack Street, Belfast. In similar fashion, they have used the babies as their focus group and have been amazed by the results.

'The little ones have been mesmerised by both the singing and the pictures. They are really connected to it all. It’s unlikely that a baby will have heard close harmony singing before, but it does seem to have a very soothing effect on them. Music has a strong emotional impact on all of us, so why not on tiny children? By the end of the session, there’s a blissfully calm atmosphere, like a baby chill-out room – unless anyone’s teething!'

Newell recalls that her immediate inspiration for Babble was the appearance at the Belfast Children’s Festival of the Portuguese company Concertos para Bebés, who enable unborn and new born babies, tiny tots and toddlers to familiarise themselves with classical music.

But her own long history of working with singers also plays a major part.18  years ago, when she was working at Dundee Rep Theatre, Newell accidentally set up a 60-strong women’s a capella harmony singing group called Loadsaweeminsingin, which is still very much alive and kicking.

'In 2004, I moved to Belfast. It was the best move I ever made in my life,' she continues. 'I set up Féile Women’s Singing Group, based at the Culturlann on the Falls Road. We’ve created all kinds of shows, sung at festivals, benefit gigs and various events and have supported singers like Eddi Reader and Mary Black, as well as composer Brian Irvine and the Russian Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra.

'When I was in Dundee, one of our projects involved Loadsaweeminsingin touring around, singing to women in their workplaces. It was incredible to see the effect the singing had not only on the female workers, but, significantly, on the babies. I’m always looking to create challenging, unusual work for challenging, unusual audiences and I’m really pleased that Babble is heading in that direction.

'The final production of Babble will be in spring 2013 as part of Replay’s 25th birthday season, when we’ll be doing three shows simultaneously. It’s a great adventure and a huge challenge for the whole company. But we hope that lots of babies will come out to see Babble at Pick ’n’ Mix. The idea is that the baby buys a ticket for £6 and the price entitles him or her to bring along one or two adults for company!'

Replay will be presenting a 12-minute long sneak preview of Babble on June 9 and 10 at the Pick ’n’ Mix Festival. Performances are at 11am and 12pm each day. Full programme and bookings online at www.themaclive.com.