THE BIG INTERVIEW: Beyond the Cart  

We’re in one of the British Library’s peaceful, civilised cafes. “More cafes than books in this place” quips one of my interviewees, Tim Webb, co-founder of Oily Cart, when I eventually find the two of them. I am talking to him and musician Max Rheinhardt, whose real name is Dave Bennett. Back in 1981 these two – with Tim’s wife Amanda, designer who uses the name Claire de Loon – started a theatre company with a difference. Pioneers, all three, they were among the first to create theatre for the youngest children and for young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).

Together they developed a new form of intimate, immersive, multi-sensory theatre in which, for PMLD shows, talented and highly skilled actors are often one-to-one with the audience members and their carers. Today the company and the respected, almost revered, work has a worldwide reputation and Tim, in particular, is in demand as a teacher, facilitator, director and consultant.

“It was time to hand it over to a new generation, but it’s been quite a hard thing to do”

Last year Tim (who was made MBE in 2011 for services to drama for children with special needs) and Dave stood down from Oily Cart, following Amanda who had already moved on. “It was time to hand it over to a new generation, but it’s been quite a hard thing to do” says Tim, stressing in almost every sentence that the three of them were a trio “like the Beverley Sisters” who worked closely together, each of them contributing to the work equally.

“We were bonded in more than one way too” says Dave ruefully. “At one point, briefly, we each had an ailing, elderly mother in Charing Cross Hospital. We three kept meeting there …” It is clearly difficult to separate work from life sometimes.

Not that they’ve retired from working now. Far from it. They simply aren’t directly involved with Oily Cart. The company website describes them as founders who are “all now enjoying freelance creative careers as freelancers and grandparents.” I comment brightly that in my experience creative people never retire. “People without pensions don’t retire either” flashes back Tim who was just back from setting up a PMLD show, Stranden, in Sweden when I met him and Dave.

“It’s touring through next year and it’s a big breakthrough for Sweden because this sort of work is new there. “In Sweden the estates of intestate people go to the state which then distributes the money to charities which can apply for grants. That’s how my show is being funded” Tim explains.

The show in question is an interpretation of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach.” There are four in the cast including a Kenyan refugee and a Le Coq-trained UK refugee. “It was an apparently generous nine-week rehearsal period but there isn’t quite the focus we’re used to in Britain and it’s a bit bureaucratic – lots of days are set aside for meetings and other things, so that you don’t actually get the time you think you have” says Tim.

Dave is the composer for Stranden. Many years ago, he played guitar in a rock band at Exeter University where his degree was in American Arts and Letters. “I’d already written some songs too,” he recalls. “Eventually it was Oily Cart which turned me into an actor-muso”. He and Tim started working together when they devised a puppet show which included pyrotechnics which they took to children’s parties and parks where they learned a lot. Then in 1981 they wrote a little musical show for pre-schoolers and Oily Cart was born.

How does Dave operate as a composer? “I used to write everything on the rehearsal floor” he says, “but sometimes it’s better to take something ready made to the rehearsal room. It’s a bit like jazz. I generally start with the chords and then devise a melody. Or I might co-compose if I’m working with really good actor-musos and in the last ten years or so we’ve cast plenty of those. For Stranden, I had so little time with the company – and then not usually at the same time as Tim – that I wrote some songs in advance.”

He doesn’t usually use conventional music notation partly because he admits he “isn’t great” at it. “If I have a musician in the cast who wants or needs that I tend to suggest that they notate it for themselves” says Dave.

And how does it feel to be doing all this independently rather than as part of Oily Cart, which has charitable status and a board of trustee/governors? “Actually it’s quite liberating” replies Dave who can also be heard regularly on Radio 3 presenting Late Junction under his professional name, Max Rheinhardt. “Being a world music DJ is my second string” he says telling me that he has done “bits and pieces” for Radio 3 since 2000 and Late Junction since 2008.

“I have to do as I’m told and what’s required of me. It’s very different from having full control as we used to have.”

“Yes” agrees Tim. “For Stranden I’m simply the director they’ve hired so I have to do as I’m told and what’s required of me. It’s very different from having full control as we used to have.” He seems pretty positive about it, though.

On the other hand, Oily Cart was (is?) the life blood of the three people who founded it. It was their company and they will – undoubtedly – always be perceived and remembered in connection with Oily Cart. It must have taken courage to relinquish it.

“Amanda started thinking about legacy and how we could ensure it as long as five or six years ago. She didn’t want to let Oily Cart go but there was no linear plan. So she started training protégés” says Tim, stressing that more than anything he didn’t want to walk away and just let the company fold. “After all we had premises, vans, contacts and a reputation!”

He chuckles. “For a long time we had to keep news of our plans from Arts Council England, though. Had they got wind of it our funding might have been affected. When I eventually confided in my ACE contact, a man I know well – he and I go back a long way – he immediately assumed that our decision would spell the end of Oily Cart.” Instead it has been what Tim calls “an orderly withdrawal”. He and Dave finally left last September, two years after Amanda’s retirement.

So what does the next few months hold? “I shall be teaching in Ireland, Sunderland and the USA where they call our work ‘sensory theatre’” says Tim, who also has two adored small grandchildren he likes to spend time with.

He is, moreover, interested in doing more work for deaf blind audiences. “We made a little show in Russia which is still touring” he says. Of course, deaf blind people aren’t necessarily intellectually impaired. One of the people I’ve met and worked with in Russia is a deaf blind Moscow University Professor and we used deaf blind actors in the piece.”

What, I wonder, are they proudest of? “Baby Blossom was definitely our best ever baby show” says Dave. Tim recalls the show based on Kubla Khan, a sort of precursor to his current poem-inspired show Stranden and another show which came in three versions – for babies, PMLD and people recovering from strokes.

Tim, Dave and Claire are bound to be a hard act to follow at Oily Cart. Recruitment took a while. Ellie Griffiths, who has performed several times in the company’s shows, is now Oily Cart’s artistic director alongside Zoe Lally, who has been appointed the first ever executive director. “God yes, it’s difficult to be ‘hands off’ but we will be” says Tim firmly. “The new artistic director needs to choose her own team.” Dave agrees: “You have to stand back and let things take their course.

Nonetheless the break can never be total. I have to race away up the Northern Line from this interview in order to get to Arts Depot in Finchley to review Oily Cart’s shoe Hippity Hop for young children. Now directed by Patrick Lynch, it’s a revival of a show Tim wrote in 2004 and Dave remains as “music consultant”, although the show’s new raps are by Breiss. I sense the invisible presence of Tim, Dave and Amanda in the corner of the room.