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‘We're brought back to the first principles of performance: learning about communication with another human'.

I know of no other company like them: three people of diverse talents, two men, Tim Webb and Dave Bennett, and Amanda Webb who was always around as designer and maker of props and puppets, and who gradually became a full-time member of the group. Tim is the writer and Dave the musician: they used to perform in the shows but nowadays things have moved on a bit. Sure, Tim is still the writer but Dave has transformed himself into another persona: Max Reinhardt, composer, musician, and, separately, DJ, now only part-time with Oily Cart. All three Oilies are prodigiously talented, with a shared vision of live theatre as a medium for life-enhancement - in particular, these days, enhancing the lives of children from 6 months up and those with learning disabilities.

What makes a theatre company a runaway success? What makes lots of funders and foundations want to support them and what makes so many schools and theatres and institutions caring for people with profound learning difficulties want them to come and play for, with and to them?

To start with, as I've already hinted, the company is unique; the three directors are people with a slightly eccentric appearance, a formidable intelligence, an ability to articulate their mission, lots of talents and endlessly creative resources. A profoundly humanitarian approach to their audiences, rarely experienced in our increasingly pitiless world, complements and tops all of that.

The company set up shop in 1981, and by 1984 had earned Arts Council funding and were able to take on an extra performer. The work then was for the very young and for juniors, and was an intensely jolly and humorous, full-on type of show with lots of audience complicity. At first these shows were characterised by bright colours, songs and dances, gags, caricatured characters - you get the picture. They appealed to the children nurtured on Saturday morning kids’ TV. First came the Exploding Punch and Judy show (Tim Webb is a good Punch professor), and shows with names like Grease, Bats in their Belfry, Beam Us Up Spotty, Curse of the Mummy's Sphinx, Parrots of Penzance, Tibet or not Tibet, Slipped Disco. They couldn't resist a good pun, as their company name demonstrates (when it was announced I had a real 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' reaction: I was brought up on Gilbert and Sullivan!).

The company has been based in Smallwood School in Wandsworth, London, for some years now. The extent of their space for workshops, offices and meetings is enviable. There is a core full-time staff of five: a General Manager, Tracy Brunt; an administrator, Toma Dim; a production manager, Jesus Gamon and the Webbs (Amanda is to be found in the programmes under the mantle of Claire de Loon: it’s time Tim found a more unlikely name). The five are supplemented by regular part-timers such as Max, although he alone among them is a company director. They employ a culturally diverse mix of performers, some again and again: they must be exceptionally pleasant to work for.

The work became more and more inclined to the creation of environments rather than stage sets for end-on seating. Its character underwent a sea change. In 1988 came the first show for people with learning disabilities, after which Oily Cart became a company specialising in ever more challenging work with and for those groups: first for children with moderate learning disabilities, then with those with more complex needs. Generally they do two shows a year, one for the very young, one for special needs groups. The ingredients in the company’s unusual recipe which has brought so much success and esteem (we're not talking riches here, just fulfilment) include the fertility of ideas flowing from the pen of Tim Webb; the wonderland environments created by Amanda and her small team of makers; Max Reinhardt's soundscapes which are multi-layered samplers of music, written for live overlay of song and speech combined with other sound design, including at least one good singer and live musician performing in the show. They must know how to improvise over the laid down tracks according to the way the show is going; there’s a sort-of 'conductor' for each performance, at present Jo James. I am told that her empathy with the various audiences whom she greets and seats, and her innate sense of pace ('let's get ON with it!') is extraordinary. Finally, the groups search for performers of sensibility and a super talent for communication - even with children unable to show any response. All these constitute the main ingredients of each Oily Cart Chef's Special.

Elaborating, Oily Cart said: 'We get the right people doing it' and gave the example of Mark Foster, whose empathy with the children is extraordinary: 'he finds eye contact; it's soul-to-soul, it's very, very deep'. On video I saw clips from their productions: three have taken place in therapy pools: Bubbles, Big Splash and Waving. In each case the pool was transformed into a magic space, with handheld lighting illuminating the water, and beautiful surrounding imagery, sounds, music and choreography, all specifically created for young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties/disabilities (PMLD). PMLD is defined on the Mencap website as: ‘profound intellectual impairment’ with additional disabilities, which may include: ‘sensory disabilities (for example, sight problems/blindness or hearing loss), physical disabilities and/or autism or mental illness... Most people with profound and multiple learning disabilities have significant communication difficulties.’ (see www.mencap.org.uk)

Off-the-wall ideas come tumbling out of Oily Cart: once it was 'why not an interactive hip-hop show for babies from as young as 6 months old?' They found artists practised in the genre, researched foundations eager to fund the idea, and in 2004 ended with a smash hit called Hippity Hop! Sensory development, in a setting difficult to provide in the average home environment, beyond any TV programme, is what they are offering, and the babies love it. There was a music theatre piece for 3 to 6 year-olds about the delights of baking (Baking Time, 2003). The Stage called it 'a sensory feast'. It featured flour, yeast, water, singing and cooking, resulting in a bread roll for each child to eat on the way home. The tiniest wanted to become part of the action, reacting in a way the company didn't at first expect: their attention, far from wandering, was riveted; they joined in the play when they were not transfixed as spectators. The parents and carers, joining in with them, are apt to find new creative ties with their kids, new ways of playing with them, new ideas for when they return home.

I asked about the afterlife of their work: can they track lasting benefits for the babies and children, with and without learning difficulties or disabilities? They answered that of course the shows live in the memory, for one thing; for another the teachers and the parents are inspired to reproduce at least some of the ideas they have received during the shared experience - new ideas for play that can build closer relationships with all the children. An Oily Cart video of the show is left in the school. The adults learn a lot: that they can alleviate sensory and emotional deprivation for those with profound learning disabilities through, for example, the potency of music and the joy of colours in the environment. A delicious trickle of water on the back of the neck, a stroking of the arm or the back or the feet, a contact of body to body, such as a gentle hugging brings unimaginable pleasure. Seeing and hearing is fine, but it's better to touch and to feel too, Amanda says. Equally potent is the effect on the teachers and the guardians who see Oily Cart working with their charges.

They see the importance of putting themselves in the children’s place, discovering what they gain from a multi-sensory and interactive journey of discovery in an utterly safe, comforting environment.
'We're all brought back to the first principles of performance: learning about communication with another human.'

My favourite phrase was Tim's: There are little epiphanies during these performances. There is no room for sentimentality: the performers are sometimes aware of dealing with beings so delicate as to be 'on the edge of life and death'. He adds: 'When you're doing it and it's working, it's the best feeling'.

The next production is (for general consumption, not specifically aimed at groups with disabilities) is called If All The World Were Paper. In Amanda’s workshop I saw the designs, props and puppets taking shape, all of course made of paper in various guises. It will tour widely in 2006, in theatres, including the Lyric in Hammersmith, London. The company also plans to run a residential workshop for teachers in special schools, pairing them with theatre practitioners, giving them the strength and the ideas to introduce some of the joy this kind of creativity and sensibility bring to children with learning disabilities.

I drove away from the interview in a warm reflected glow, absently heading for home in the wrong direction. Oily Cart really is a remarkable company of remarkable people!


For further information on Oily Cart and a tour schedule for If All The World Were Paper, see
www.oilycart.org.uk

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