Reading is risky, seeing is knowing

The Fringe festival programme can be deceptive, but there are some children's theatre gems, writes Brian Hayward

Buying theatre tickets for the under-12s is a fraught business. You can skim read a book before you buy it and may be hounded with requests for a game or cd-rom, but when you buy a Fringe ticket your only guide is the puff in the festival programme. The theatre company is allowed about 45 words to entice you to part with your money and, with publication copy deadlines as they are, it may well have written the blurb before it finished writing the show. So, believing what you read is risky.

For example, in Uncle Remus: Stories of the Old Plantation, "a reading of tales", the reader never so much as opens a book. Instead Peter Myers, a large, genial lawyer from Missouri, sits on a bare stage in the Greyfriars Kirk House and, without so much as an "Are you sitting comfortably?"

recites several of the enduring tales in the coastal dialect of Georgia.

He came a long way to do this and he had to. "I couldn't do this in the States," he told me. "Even black actors would be booed off the stage if they tried it. The book is on a political see-saw: Joel Chandler Harris, the writer, was in his time accused of being anti-white. But my aunt read me these stories and on the farm we had two black farmhands and I just got fascinated by the language."

No more accurate was the Sunduza Dance Theatre from Zimbabwe, led by the hugely-talented Simon Banda. It advertised "the story of a struggling musician dreaming of fame in the gold mines of South Africa" but gave us another "put your guitar away and get a decent job" story, a flimsy thread to string together a succession of exhilarating dances and wonderfully resplendent a cappella, polyphonic singing. In their defence, Injabulo (Joy) 2000 was the children's show.

Later in the day the company staged Matata (The Big Problem), a musical where the team used traditional folk art to open up debate on the weighty concerns of southern Africa, Aids, Christian mission, colonialism and environmental pressures among them. Interestingly, education through the medium of English is also an issue, which is why this is likely to be the only time you will find the "overseas Cambridge exams" in a musical.

You would suspect that the Theatre du Risorius somewhat over-estimated the quality of our foreign language teaching in primary schools when it omitted to mention in its 45 words that Panic at the Circus is mostly in French.

This is a pity, because the two actors, who manipulate the hippopotamus, the elephant and the monkey through their accident-prone circus acts, are clever enough mime artists to dispense with language altogether.

Children of a certain age prefer soft, furry animals to people and respond to them with instant affection. Before they get the chance here, the production strains their patience with an unnecessary introduction, barely visible and in French. It is the kind of prologue that tests to the limit the theory that you have to grab a young audience's attention in the first two minutes or else. However, thereafter the frantic energy of the two clowns keeps everyone happy.

Shona Reppe has been performing her Cinderella puppet show at the Netherbow virtually non-stop since she premi red it in the International Children's Theatre Festival. More white witch than fairy Godmother, she gives everyone in the audience a flick over with her feather-duster as they come in. She says she wants a clean audience, but it's really a tickling stick.

Going on to dust the stage, she finds mysterious notes crying for "Help!"

Intrigued, the audience are drawn into a free-wheeling, off-the-wall inventiveness, where Cinderella's ugly sisters are a pair of fancy gloves that let the fingers do the walking, her stepfather is the sound of heavy footsteps and the Prince is a fluorescent cut-out that waltzes aerially with the made-over Cinderella. Ms Reppe's version has only one puppet, a rag doll for the eponymous heroine. Beyond that, her imagination, and that of the watching children, ranges unrestrained through the contents of her idiosyncratic sideboard and magic handbag.

I expect her passport says "puppeteer", but she is actress, magician and comedienne as well, and this production may turn out to mark an important stage in her development as an original artist. As a puppeteer, her strength is not in technical virtuosity or in the flamboyance or detail of her figures. Her power lies in her wickedly accurate observation of human nature, a mischievous sense of humour and a tender sensitivity. When she allies them to her acting skills, the end result is a complex and engaging performance for children, spiced only with the odd wink or three for their parents.

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