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All the fun of the festival

As the largest performing arts festival for children hits Edinburgh this weekend, Raymond Ross previews the star attractions

This month the Scottish International Children's Festival, the biggest performing arts festival for three to 14-year-olds and the only one of its kind in Britain, is presenting no less than 26 theatre companies and arts organisations in some 250 events over seven days.

Based in Edinburgh's Inverleith Park, the festival (May 19-25) attracts its young audiences from as far afield as Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands. Last year, attendance figures reached an all-time high of 34,000, and the organisers are hoping for another extra-bumper year.

The outstanding success of this festival is due to many factors, not least advance programming of exciting international companies (some are already booked for 1998) and the festival's school bus subsidy, which is also available to other groups. When a school or group books its bus, it sends the festival a copy of the invoice. The festival then refunds half the money if the school is from Edinburgh or Pounds 1 per head if it is from outside.

Festival director Tony Reekie sees careful programming and travel subsidy as central to the festival's success. Timing is also important. "The festival takes place over a bank holiday weekend, so that we have four days when school parties dominate and three days for premium public access. It's the perfect balance," he says.

In 1994 the festival attendees were heavily biased towards school parties (80 per cent), but now the ratio is closer to 5050 and that's the way Edinburgh wants it to stay. "The festival is about children in the community," Reekie says, "as much as it is about children in school. Our target is to produce a programme which still appeals to schools while attracting a growing public. "

The growing public attendance may also be due to familiarity. Launched in 1990, the Children's Festival has now become part of the cultural fabric of Scotland's Festival City.

Topping the European billing are three Danish companies, and Beumer Drost's show The Radio Men boasts two of Europe's top children's performers at their most sublime and silliest. These radio men have a job to do - to capture and store all the sounds needed for radio broadcasts and naturally they use high-tech equipment for the task: glass jars.

At a recent showcase festival in Denmark there was intense rivalry to land this show and Reekie preens himself on the success of securing its Edinburgh premiere. But there is a flip side to this and Reekie is not rose-tinted in his vision of comparative funding. "About Pounds 6 million a year is put into performance work for children in Denmark, a nation comparable in size to Scotland. And what does Scotland invest? I would doubt if it's even Pounds 250,000. It's that kind of European attitude, and spend, that leads to crack performers at the height of their craft working in the children's arena, which is unthinkable in Britain."

That said, many fine home-grown favourites have found their way to Inverleith again, from Magic Bob and Mr Boom to Hullabaloo, TAG (who are doing Peter Pan - see below) and the recently-televised Happy Gang.

Of the three Danish shows, perhaps the most intriguing is Tiger Tango, a beautifully choreographed blend of dance, live music and story-telling. "It's the kind of show that makes dance accessible to seven-year-olds," says Reekie, "and there are not too many of this quality going about." The show tells the story of a man who befriends a tiger in the jungle and tries to bring it home.

In a new development, the festival is spreading beyond its tented realm in Inverleith Park to nearby Theatre Workshop for Maze of Power, a murder mystery in which the audience becomes the jury. It is a show targetted at 12 to 14-year-olds. "As this show is specifically aimed at early teenagers, we wanted to move it out of the festival to a more adult theatre environment," says Reekie. "It's important that we bridge this gap because the target audience do not see themselves as children and will feel more at home in the more adult theatre environment. We must always try new things."

Other attractions include contortionist and magician Tomas Kubinek (Canada), Hunter Puppet Company doing Alice in Wonderland using giant puppets, the Armagh Rhymers (Northern Ireland) with a rhyme-and-riddle show called The Enormous Turnip; and Winnie the Pooh courtesy of Richard Medrington's Parable Puppets.

Other activities include a play tent; drama, art, craft and story-telling activities; dance workshops; a time-mosaic presented by the Council for Scottish Archaeology and the chance to make airwaves in special media studios where budding reporters have to set their own deadlines.

One feature missing this year is the very popular drop-in book centre. Due to local authority cutbacks, Edinburgh City Libraries are unable to participate, but Reekie is hopeful they'll be back in 1998. "Our aim is to do projects all year round," he says. "For instance, we could tour shows round Scotland outwith the festival. I'm speaking to local authorities to see what they're doing and what they might want. Hopefully we could provide an international aspect to local arts events for children."

The Scottish International Children's Festival is at Inverleith Park, Edinburgh, May 19-25. Children and concessions Pounds 3.50; adults Pounds 5. Box office: 0131 553 7700.

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