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Ripping yarns

Ann Fitzgerald delights in The Singing Rock, a storytelling production for four to eight-year-olds. Nicola Uglow believes there is no substitute for live storytelling for young children. "On television everything rushes past at high speed, particularly the cartoon images. Here the pace enables the children to enter into the story, to absorb the ideas and be in touch with their feelings. "

She talks as she accompanies her class of six to seven-year-olds from Rosslyn School, Birmingham, to The Singing Rock, a dramatised storytelling production for young children at Birmingham's Midlands Arts Centre.

The small, steeply-raked auditorium flows down to a setting of dry, sandy plains, fronted by triangular sheets of painted canvas and groups of rounded, stylised rocks, one sheltering an interesting collection of musical instruments. Without too close a definition, it suggests a world of wigwams, yet is also a pleasing pattern of shapes and colours.

Chanting and drumming, three performers make their way through the auditorium. As Poisha the Native American boy, actor and musician David Topliff takes his place on one of the "rocks" which, in the tradition of the legend, begins to talk to him.

In the course of an hour-and-a-half, broken by an interval, six folk tales from North America, Africa and the Caribbean are presented with wonderful versatility. How the turtle got the deep markings on his shell is fully dramatised with incidental steel-pan music, the two actors wearing lightweight wooden head masks and costumes in the tropical colours of the Caribbean.

The Native American tale of the creation of the stars is sung country and western style to a guitar with close harmony from an off-stage voice. The characters appear as shadow puppets projected on to a large disc of fine leather stretched between thick poles, with the constellations picked out in tiny lights.

Bold wooden rod puppets play the characters of Rhino and Giraffe in the story of how the giraffe got his long neck, while in the more mystic Native American legend of the great life-giving lake the narrative is amplified by graceful mime and dance.

In sharp contrast, Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox receive a broadly comic performance from actors in half-face masks and cool-dude modern gear, from which sprout ears and tails.

This range of style and tone delivers constant surprises and the vivid characters hold the audience engrossed in the moral dilemmas which the stories pose. One moment there is a burst of delighted laughter, the next a deep hush.

Yvonne Riley, accompanying pupils with severe learning difficulties from Calthorpe Special School, says: "This has a completely different impact from television. Our youngsters tend to sit glassy-eyed in front of the screen but here they are reacting and responding."

Despite similar observations from other teachers, the production's writerdirector Jon Trevor says schools are finding it difficult to finance theatre trips. But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in the recently announced changes to the use of National Lottery money. School visits to professional drama and music events may be subsidised.

The Singing Rock, for four to eight-year-olds, is in peformance until May 18. On booking schools receive a teacher's pack with ideas for preparation andor follow-up work. Box office: 0121 440 3838

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