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Don't miss the catch of the year

Everyone over the age of six months will find plenty to capture their attention, from Belgium to Zimbabwe, writes Heather Neill

The Catch children's theatre festival. Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. February 23-April 26

Catch. You can catch a ball or an idea. Let's ignore colds and think instead of enthusiasms. Or perhaps a catch on a door which opens on to a new world. Rachel Clare, curator of The Catch, the two-month-long festival of children's theatre at the Lyric in west London, thought carefully about that title. It could also represent the way she has netted work that "represents the best in theatre and across the arts, from Europe and further afield, which is not saccharine or Disney-fied".

It is particularly important to Ms Clare that adults should not feel excluded. She paints a most undesirable picture from her own experience of a dad doing his duty of a Saturday morning by taking children to see a performance but remaining resolutely uninvolved, probably reading the sports pages in the back row. Just let anyone try (or want) to do that during John Hegley's hilarious My Dog is a Carrot. Wild fantasy, punning poems, audience participation in making a poet-tree in a show solemnly delivered by Mr Hegley, his funny-serious face decorated with the trademark specs, has everyone falling off chairs. John Hegley is in The Catch in early March.

As a programmer of outdoor events, including, from 1992 to 1998, the Great Outdoors, a summer-long festival on the South Bank in London, Ms Clare knows it is possible to engage several age groups simultaneously more often than some people might think. She was frustrated by "insulting and insubstantial work for children and the way it is marginalised" when she wanted suitable shows for her own two children. As a child herself she travelled the world with her teacher parents and was used to seeing performances and religious rituals in foreign cultures from Ethiopia to Jamaica. So there is something in The Catch for everyone over six months old.

Six months? That really is starting young. Ms Clare is generally keen to include anyone as long as parents are aware of other people's enjoyment and remove restive children, but Oily Cart's Jumpin' Beans show has three versions, one specifically designed for babies and toddlers. The Oily Cart company has for 20 years been touring plays for very young children and people with learning difficulties. Tim Webb, co-founder and performer, says: "For the very young a show has to be interactive. You have to enter the imaginative world of play. Our audiences don't sit quietly in orderly rows."

Their shows are visually stimulating and multisensory. Parents of the very youngest children "fly" (that is, carry) them into the magical cloud world of a large white inflatable. The same environment provides a setting for plays with more emphasis on character and narrative for nursery and pre-school children, when it becomes a garden or a bedroom for a character called Jumping Jackie. But first everyone visits the wibbly-wobbly waiting room to play on soft sculptures and small trampolines.

Tim Webb and Oily Cart have visited Belgium and France. The tradition of physical theatre is stronger in mainland Europe than in the UK, where text is paramount. This - and more generous funding - has led to innovative children's theatre, especially in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Ms Clare has invited several companies from other countries, mostly European, although The Blue Grassy Knoll, a band that performs foot-stomping and "dark cabaret laments" to accompany silent comic films starring Buster Keaton, comes all the way from Australia. Triebwerk brings an imaginative, minimalist Moby Dick from Germany between February 27 and March 1.

From Belgium, Agora brings The Scarlet Prince, recommended for anyone over eight. This is a wistful, playful piece, involving the distribution of gallons of paint, quite a lot of it over the five performers. The starting point is the Cinderella story and an exploration of what happens after the magical wedding, but it is dream-like and fantastical, with plenty of space for the audience to interpret according to their own imagination. Veterans of performances in more than 25 countries, Agora hold their London premiere on April 15.

Although The Catch is subtitled "putting the snap into children's theatre", other art forms are represented, sometimes several at once. Another Belgian company, Music Theater Transparent offers Radio Ping Pong for anyone over the age of three (April 18 and 19). As you touch the armchairs and pictures in their room, the band leaps to life to play music specially for you.

Charles Faustin's Caribbean Counting and The Selfish Crocodile combines rhymes, music, stories and Caribbean humour. Sophia Clist will be working with two-and-a-half miles of knicker elastic, video projectors, live music and a performer on April 12 to make an installation in Stretch. Anyone can help, but booking is essential.

On April 5 Gobble and Gorge is "a day of pictures, words and Brussels sprouts" with stories and the opportunity to build a giant vegetable sculpture.

Music is important throughout. World Muzik Makers are UK-based, but their Vibrations mixes South African melody with rhythms from Zimbabwe, and offers children the chance to try drumming, percussion and traditional dance on March 29.

Sister India Featuring DJ Ritu promises to be "a Bollywood extravaganza with a difference". Every show is different and soon everyone is dancing.

DJ Ritu orchestrates proceedings, while the all-Asian, mainly female performers engage with the audience in a colourful show. Vocals, visual art and even swinging swords should win the group new fans on February 23. The company will also be leading workshops in dance and dhol, traditional drumming.

These are just a few examples, and some events are free. If you can't get to London, catch the companies elsewhere - many of them tour. In fact, catch what you can.

Tickets: 08700 500 511. Information:

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