Small wonders.

Kate Feld

Manchester International Festival returns with an expanded children’s programme for 2011 that should please parents and kids alike, finds Kate Feld.

You wouldn’t know it from reading the broadsheets, but the most successful event of 2009’s Manchester International Festival might have been The Great Indoors, its free children’s programme. Just getting in the door proved a challenge, a reflection of the great demand for out-of-the-ordinary kids cultural fun. So expanding on things for kids to do  at MIF was a priority for 2011 and this year they’re running two projects: Music Boxes, an audio play area for children aged 6 months to 7 years, and The Crash of The Elysium, a Doctor Who-themed live theatre show from edgy company Punchdrunk. No face painting here, then.

There’s not a whisper of the feeling you get with some festivals that the children’s offering is an afterthought, something cobbled together as a sop to parents or to tick inclusiveness boxes. MIF General Director Simon Mellor is executive producer for both projects, and he’s also a parent who’s frustrated by the way a lot of kids’ programming seems to involve sitting them down to be passively entertained. “We take our work for children as seriously as the rest of our work,” Mellor says. “We want to get the best artists in the world to do the most innovative and exciting work they can do. Children are as deserving of this approach as adults, and they respond to it.”

Music Boxes will take place in a series of shipping containers on the shiny new piazza at MediaCityUK in Salford Quays. Each space will house a music experience created by a really impressive list of artists: Cornershop worked with Bolton students and design company Rude to make a music video kids can re-mix. Babies can explore Scottish Opera’s singing garden, enjoy Oily Cart’s multi-sensory show Drum, and play in Aflutter, a landscape of paper, wind and sound created by JoNny* and Stephen Stockbridge (whose Simple Wonders installation was the hit of 2009’s Great Indoors). Toddlers and older kids can “conduct” a pre-recorded BBC Philharmonic, learn ukelele with Jake Rodrigues, and jam with CBeebies’ Zingzillas.

While Music Boxes is designed for kids and their parents to enjoy together, The Crash of the Elysium most definitely isn’t. To the great disappointment of many grown-ups, tickets to this live theatre show will only be issued to under 12s (kids under 9 must be accompanied by an adult, but those adults will be politely asked to butt out as much as possible.) Punchdrunk’s spooky It Felt Like a Kiss was probably the most talked-about event of Manchester International Festival 2009, and doing something specifically for young audiences was right up their street, Mellor says. “Their work is very visceral and direct, it takes audiences back to being children and walking through tunnels to scare yourself.”

Crash, produced in collaboration with BBC Wales at MediaCityUK, will be the closest you can get to living inside an episode of Doctor Who (barring the presence of Matt Smith or any of the other TV actors). Details are understandably hazy, but there will be a problem that the children will have to solve, working together in a race against the clock. Sound frightening? Yes, Mellor says, it will be every bit as scary as Doctor Who is, and why shouldn’t it be? “I’m a great believer in the catharsis of the fairy story,” Mellor says, “the idea that you face the scariness and you come out the other side and feel fantastic for it.”


Music Boxes, 2-17 July. MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, M50 2EQ. Free, but booking required. Punchdrunk: The Crash of The Elysium, 1-17 July, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, M50 2EQ. Tickets £17.50-£20. Images: courtesy Manchester Intenational Festival


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