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Fun with a few strings attached

Brian Hayward examines the wealth of ideas and the high quality of wares at a puppet festival extraordinaire

It is rare for adults to let children keep a good thing to themselves - I can remember when men would no more eat ice cream in the street than smear it over their hair, but we've managed to overcome our prejudice. But there is one thing we've let the kids keep for themselves for over a century - something which in Britain firmly belongs with short trousers, dolls and early bedtimes, but which most of the rest of the world keeps on the same shelf as theatre and opera. We're talking about puppetry here.

My own benchmark of the artform has to be the most involving performance of Buchner's Wozzeck I ever saw, by a Canadian puppet company on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with the cadaverous actors endlessly sucking the audience's compassion into the fathomless pits of their sightless eyes. But you can be sure there won't be anything like that at the Puppet Animation Festival 2000, which spreads itself over south and central Scotland from now until the end of April.

What particularly pleases festival director Simon Hart is that, like Topsy, the festival has "just growed". Seventeen years ago, it began as a single week; since then, without the expense or benefit of advertising, 15 local authorities from East Lothian to Dumfries and Galloway have asked to be involved, and this year there will be over 150 performances, workshops and screenings in over 70 venues. Over 2,000 school children will see performances in school or on visits, and thousands more will go in family groups.

Ask Simon Hart to explain the success of the festival, and he is quick to give credit to local authority arts and education officers. "They need high quality children's theatre, and they talk to one another, that's how the word spreads.

"But the secret is in the adaptability of the puppeteers. Most of them work alone or in pairs, and they can take their work almost anywhere, without losing any of the high production values. Because they all earn their bread and butter in schools, they can handle the young audiences, they've got strategies for coping with unusual crowds and venues."

All of that is true, but what always excites Simon Hart is the distinctive quality of puppetry that allows it to sidestep the constraints and limitations of conventional human art and create its own worlds, its own life-forms and languages. These languages can be orthodox or invened, can be mime or gesture, or musical, expressed in ways that blur the conventional divisions of music, art and dance and drama.

Broadly speaking, the puppeteers operate in three ways: booths are the standard, but operators can be in full view of the audience, as in Martha by Catherine Wheels, deservedly taking its place in the festival on the back of its friendly goose, operated by an actor. The third way is "black theatre", and Purves International Puppets does a blacklight version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with luminous, almost life-sized puppets which, to justify its name, has just toured in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Jordan and Syria.

Conspicuous among the amazing art work on view is Go Noah Go by the eminent Little Angel Puppet Theatre, an exuberant Caribbean version of the Noah's Ark story, adapted by the writer John Agard and featuring the animals of the earth created by skilled woodcarvers.

But the primeval power of puppetry is the ease with which it can alter perspective, space and dimension. Story Box Theatre, for example, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen, takes us into the sea, far out where the water is as blue as cornflower, clear as glass and cold as ice, deeper than any anchor rope can reach, to meet the sea people, and to discover the story of The Little Mermaid. Shone Areppe, whose Little Red Hen was such a success last year, returns with Tom Thumb, a quirky little story that investigates the idea of small scale, of what it is like to be tiny, to bath in a teacup, to skate across an iced cake, to be swallowed by a pet fish.

The fantastic is brought alive in the third of Richard Medrington's acclaimed adaptations of A A Milne, "Pooh for the Purists," as he likes to say. In Pooh and Piglet Nearly Meet the Heffalump, the author invites us up to the attic for a bedtime story, and in a search for Rabbit's friends, Piglet's worst nightmare nearly comes true.

I ask Simon Hart whether he has any plans for letting adults in on the fun.

"We're thinking about it all the time. We could never promote it within the context of what has always been a children's festival. There are one or two companies working in adult puppetry - Faulty Optics, for instance. The Traverse or the Tron audiences could take it. We're thinking about it."

Meanwhile, teachers and parents at the "family shows" should enjoy and feel no guilt, no more than over having an ice cream.

For information and listings, tel: 0131 556 9579

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