Natural History Museum, London SW7
220 Upper Tooting Road, London SW17
Opened 3 May, 2003

LIFT, the London International Festival of Theatre, has made the transition from biennial jamboree to rolling year-round programme, but nevertheless the early summer of an odd-numbered year continues to see the familiar concentration of LIFT shows. This year's selection is labelled "a family friendly season", and continues until midsummer. The first pair of productions each involves interactivity to make us look at things in fresh ways.

The Museum Of Modern Oddities is housed in the Natural History Museum in Kensington (meet, we are helpfully told, under the diplodocus's tail). MOMO curator Dr Constance B. Sternn (Katy Bowman) guides us through the public galleries, offering helpful titbits of spurious information as we go. We are then delivered behind the scenes, to gaze at exhibits including a pickled teddy bear and an alleged racing stoat, stuffed. Then into a completely blacked-out room, where Dr Sternn's colleagues, played by a number of children from Holland Park School, tell torchlit stories about darkness, forests, pets and other animals. The blackout at once focuses one's attention and liberates the imagination. Finally we are invited, every one of us, to dig deep and donate objects to MOMO's growing collection of "pocket ephemera". Items ranging from bottle-tops to banknotes, from an F.A. Cup semi-final ticket to a condom packet, are all bagged and labelled for display, so that we consider them afresh as artefacts rather than the everyday stuff they usually are.

The Theatre-Rites company present imaginative site-specific puppetry-based shows; Shopworks is in, well, a shop on Upper Tooting Road, decked out like an old-fashioned general store. We watch the struggle for succession between Ms Scales and Mr Till, but even at the age of 100 Mr Brown cannot bring himself to retire. Gradually, items of stock animate themselves into visions from Mr Brown's past: a number of umbrellas and cloths coalesce into a difficult customer, young Mr Brown's childhood friend consists largely of tins of pilchards. The entire audience then joins the staff in search of Mr Brown in the shop's back room; first we each don a brown traditional shop coat in order to obey the "Staff Only" notice on the door, then are led by flashlight through a labyrinth of cardboard boxes piled high and, it gradually transpires, moving around us as if the shop itself were alive and breathing. It feels at first like a slightly superior children's television show from the days before various pastel creatures dominated programming, but in the course of an hour it develops into an adventure for all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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