Refreshing twist to familiar tales

The International Children's Festival, which culminates next weekend, features some surprises, writes Brian Hayward

The three days of the Scottish International Children's Festival in Edinburgh next weekend are merely the public days that round off a week in which the SICF has played to 12,000 schoolchildren, their teachers and carers from 100 schools from Shetland to the Borders.

"We take this aspect of our work very seriously indeed," says festival director Tony Reekie. "We try to make it as pain-free for the teachers as possible. I take my one child to the theatre - what it is like taking 35, I can't imagine. So we try to do everything for them."

That includes the free bus offered to every school party - a big help when travel can cost more than the tickets. "We couldn't do it without the Bank of Scotland bus travel scheme," says Mr Reekie. "But it does mean we can reach out to children from all sections of the community, children who, for geographical or other reasons, would otherwise have little or no access to the arts."

"Access" is a word very much in the vocabulary of arts workers these days, and the arts unit of Edinburgh education department, a major funder of the festival, selects 12 deserving and underfunded city schools to host visits from theatre and storytelling companies.

The theme of the festival is well-known stories and the programme is studded with familiar names - Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Jemima Puddle-Duck and the Wild Things. "It's part of the business of the festival to refresh stories, to show them in a new light, to make them a new and shared experience for the children, their teachers and their families," says Mr Reekie. That certainly happens with the Blue Tiger Music Theatre's interpretation of Hansel and Gretel, with its setting in a children's hospital.

Mr Reekie says: "Probably because of my theatre background, over the past three or four years I've been moving away from the stand-up and sing-along type of how - not that these haven't got their role - and homing in on stories, especially those that call for an emotional response from the audience.

"It's the first business of theatre to tell a story, an exciting story, and if the children are bored, well, then we've failed."

To find his stories, the director travels the world, visiting as many international children's festivals as his budget will allow. In the past year he has travelled to the USA and Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The latter still the benchmark for children's arts, with 75 full-time companies.

Asia, Eastern Europe and South America are less happy hunting grounds: there the children's arts tend to be traditionally ethnic and so travel less well.

Next weekend Edinburgh will see productions from Germany, Denmark, three Scottish companies and four from England. They include the prize-winning German Can You Whistle, Johanna? When Mr Reekie saw it he had an uneasy first five minutes, he says, and then found it "perfectly off the wall, very funny and incredibly moving ... a small miracle of delicacy, humour and sentiment".

The Danish Meridiano Theatre, from Copenhagen, led by Italian director and dramatist Giacomo Ravicchio, gives a cosmic setting to its performance of Foetus. Within a larger narrative context, the focal points are the Russian cosmonaut, weightless in his capsule, communing with his unborn child, suspended in its mother's womb, home in Moscow.

Though the heart of the festival is theatre, there are also dance workshops run by Helter Skelter featuring "up-to-the-minute moves from hip hop to jazz", including classical Indian, salsa and street dance. Theatre Workshop hosts storytelling by James Campbell, Claire Mulholland and Michael Kerins, in association with the Scottish Storytelling Centre, while the Edinburgh Filmhouse screens The Boy from Mercury and The Tigger Movie.

Scottish International Children's Festival, tel 0131 225 8050

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