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Puppets for fun, be it fable or fact

Various puppetry styles and workshops are lined up to make Scotland's 20th annual Puppet Animation Festival the best ever, reports Brian Hayward

Some kink in our culture makes us think that puppetry is for children, whereas in other parts of Europe it is a recognised art form like any other. If we felt differently, more might be made of Scotland's annual Puppet Animation Festival.

On Monday, the festival starts celebrating its 20th year with 250 performances from 22 puppet companies in 94 venues spread throughout central and southern Scotland over the next six weeks. Numbers like these make it the UK's oldest and largest festival for children and young people.

Simon Hart, the festival director, aims to improve even on the 16,500 audience of last year and has some powerful cards to play.

The teasing charm of Shona Reppe keeps her Cinderella winning over people's hearts, picking up a major children's theatre prize on a recent tour of Canada to add to her Total Theatre award won at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. I recommend this show, particularly to children accompanied by their fathers.

Star visitor is the leading French company Theatre du Foz, which brings the fashionably environmental story of The Intruder, about the travails of a bear who emerges from hibernation to discover his forest felled and a factory built over his den. To add insult to injury, he is mistaken for a skiving workman.

Some festival favourites make a welcome return. Garlic Theatre, one of the best known companies and winner of prizes all over Europe, brings Fiddlesticks, a world of musical fantasy conjured up by a blend of clowning, rod and shadow puppets, percussion and live music, in which the playful spirit of a violin breaks free of his strings to go in search of his beautiful Violinka.

The Banyan Theatre Company returns with the festival's most successful show ever, its version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which won a coveted Time Out award for best children's production.

Only the first quarter of the festival happens in term time, just long enough to give schools the chance to choose between an end-of-term treat or enriching their projects with something more educational. The best of the latter is Clydebuilt Puppet Theatre's rod and shadow puppet show The Magic of the Mummy. This is proving very popular with teachers running projects on the ancient world and quite fascinating to P3 pupils upwards, who obviously enjoy the more gruesome aspects of Egyptian life revealed when the wicked Seth tries to supplant his brother Osiris.

The line between education and treat blurs a little for those studying Scottish life and culture, who can take in Yugen Puppets' Little Princess Goldtree, a Scottish version of the Snow White story. Or they could enjoy the Celtic imagery of symbolism and magic in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table from Little Angel Puppet Theatre, one of Britain's oldest, most respected companies.

At the other end of the educational ladder, Chameleon Puppets, a leading exponent of shadow puppetry, is holding a week-long residency in Dumfries and Galloway in partnership with the PUMA project, the coach which tours the rural south-west offering various activities. Dumfries College of Art students will have a two-day workshop with Chameleon Puppets, after which they will work for three days with young people and adults in mixed ability groups, everyone coming together on the final Saturday of the festival to share their work.

Participative workshops are the growth point of the festival. This year puppet companies are offering classes to children in five locations across central Scotland, and already Ayr College is planning to operate the Dumfries College model next year.

Puppet Animation Festival, March 24-May 3. Festival director, Simon Hart, tel 01786 467163 for a guidee-mail

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