Being There: Lullaby

Feature in Issue 23-3 | Autumn 2011

A Threeway view of Lullaby by Duckie as seen at the Barbican BITE London.

Duckie’s Lullaby certainly takes immersive theatre to a new level. Armed with your toothbrush, pyjamas and slippers you are welcomed gently to a giant slumber party. Twenty or so inviting beds of varying sizes are placed in a circle in the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, where you are invited to spend the entire night with one of the UK’s most playful theatre companies. Throughout the experience there are plenty of thoughtful touches such as glasses of water next to your pillow, an individual bar of soap anticipating your morning shower, and a pause for smokers to have their all-important before-bed nicotine fix.

As the glowing bedside lamps dim, we are taken on a kaleidoscopic journey of gentle absurdities by four long-john clad performers. Sisters H Plewis and Harriet Plewis serenade us with beautiful harmonies accompanied by melodicas, harmoniums and pianos. Tim Spooner and Matthew Robins join, and all four float in and out of the central ‘stage’ space as green, sequined octopi, white ducks and elephants. At one point a house with smoke puffing from its chimney floats past. At least I think that’s what I saw…

And that is the magic of Lullaby. We’re never asked to sit and concentrate on a narrative or earnestly engage with goings on. Instead, director Mark Whitelaw and his collaborators skillfully allow us to experience the entire night as we wish to do so. Sweet stories are read to us from a glowing storybook, snippets of which are lodged in my brain: tigers and trees; children dreaming of having superpowers; a man imagining a family of children, having lost his partner. Others are hovering around in my subconscious, no doubt. Meanwhile, circles of colour and seemingly hand-drawn animations are projected onto the ceiling above us. And all of this we can take or leave, let wash over us, or think about all night long.

As the evening progresses and sleep engulfs most people, it is somewhat soothing to hear the small snores of our neighbours and the rustling of the sheets in the bed next door. As children we are lulled into sleep by dim light, soothing music and story. It feels joyfully liberating to let the outside world slip away and be seduced into sleep in childlike wonderment where everything and anything seems possible and, most importantly, somebody else is taking care of you. Not to mention the boiled egg and soldiers to kick start the morning after.
Terry O’Donovan, Total Theatre Magazine reviewer and co-director of theatre company dANTE OR dIE

We talk about inhaling and exhaling and inflation and deflation in the show: nebulae expanding and contracting, and telling stories into balloons which become moons. And one of the first things we parade onto the stage is a cartoon tiger with a cartoon speechbubble which inflates as he waves. Tonight I heard Matthew, who wears the costume, sigh from inside it. These big cartoon costumes are all quite uncomfortable and hot and we can’t really see out of them, so we perform with an amateurishness that I hope we will never overcome. Tonight, the Elephant and the House kept sidestepping into each others’ collision paths, trying to do the opposite, and I got lost and walked into an usher.

The sound of people snoring signals the beginning of the end of the show, the final deflation of the show. It confirms that part of the audience has stopped being an audience in the usual way, which means we stop being performers in the usual way. As the show and the snoring deepen, and I’m less and less sure that anybody’s watching, I feel more like I’m carrying out a ritual observance whose symbolism I’ve forgotten. I inflate another speechbubble/ghostoctopus with my wheeled device, the elephant-table-hairdryer confection, and it rises to the ceiling and crashes to the ground, slowly. Once the air’s gone out of it, I put on a special glove to remove it from the room, and I feel warmly lost again. The usher is still watching because it’s his job to stay awake.
Tim Spooner, performer & co-deviser, Duckie

Duckie are still reeling from a show that has garnered the full set in terms of press reviews: winning 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and no stars in the papers. I awake to find today’s Sunday papers are a similar mixed bag, with one hilariously bad review. Press nights and Duckie’s highly interactive shows have never really been a good mix – the reviewers love theatre and see our alternative shenanigans as a lot of stuff and nonsense. Thankfully tonight’s audience is a real one – bright young culture vultures who want to take part…

After checking in, our PJ-clad hosts cater for the patrons every need – hot chocolate is served and their comfy posh beds await. This is experimental theatre as a four-star B&B – a cosy, friendly live art hotel – and the mixed gay and straight crowd of bedmates are here to get seriously domestic. The choice of nightwear worn by the audience is interesting – no one is wearing PJs that put out, or show off, always a mix of mismatched comfort jim-jams that they would wear at home. The emphasis is on domesticity and our interior selves. Staying in is the new going out.

The Duckie gang of four homebirds – sisters Harriet and H Plewis and partners Tim Spooner and Matthew Robins – lay out their performance fare of delicate, homespun, and handmade songs, stories and pictures. They have devised a piece that breaks all the rules of theatre – being undramatic, soft, soporific – and the chosen aesthetic is amateurish, approximate, real, fragile. Welcome to the new bedroom theatre. The Plewis sisters have been singing together since they were toddlers, and with Matthew Robin’s folky, elegant, English score deliver a cycle of lullabies that tell us sleepers that everything will be OK, we can switch off now, we can sleep, we are safe.

Duckie’s audience have had enough sex and drugs and rock and roll. Tonight we want cellos and cocoa, pianos and poetry, tucking in and dreaming, comradeship, and a warm welcome in the comfort inn. Duckie’s director Mark Whitelaw recently articulated the intention behind this quiet piece: ‘It’s like we’re all puppies heading for the basket, trying to snuggle in together. That’s a deep desire in us all – and when we get to that place, I think everyone will feel safer.’

The punters slowly drift off to the land of nod as the show quietly continues into the small hours. Sunday is the perfect night to experience this event – the party is over, this is the comedown, and it’s not so bad.
Simon Casson, Duckie Producer

Duckie’s Lullaby was seen at the Pit Theatre, Barbican, as part of the BITE season, 3 July 2011. See For more about Duckie:
Tim Spooner:

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Issue 23-3
p. 26 - 27