A golden egg from this goose;Arts

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Brian Hayward looks forward to the Scottish International Children's Festival next week, and welcomes a newproduction from the team that produced 'The Red Balloon'

Among the dozen productions heading for the Scottish International Children's Festival in Edinburgh next week (May 18- 23) is Martha, a delightful piece of theatre for five-year-olds and upwards from Catherine Wheels. You won't have heard of the company before, but Wheels is Annie Wood and Gill Robertson, the team that brought you The Red Balloon.

This is big league name-dropping in children's theatre. The Red Balloon went to Take-Off, the children's theatre showcase in Barrow, where it caught the eye of an American impresario who entered it in a children's theatre festival at Palm Beach, Florida, where it won the Victor award, then launched it on a six-week tour of Canada and the USA, followed by a residency at the New Victory theatre on Broadway.

This is unimaginable recognition for children's theatre workers, so I have to take a deep breath before saying that on first view I find Martha an even more satisfying piece of work.

It certainly has a lot going for it, not least that it has grown from the close collaboration of two skilled children's artists. The idea for the story came from Annie Wood, who drew on her childhood experience on Islay:

"We lived in a house overlooking the harbour. I spent my childhood on the beach. I just delved around in my memories."

Helping re-shape the reminiscence is Gill Robertson as the stubborn, self-sufficient and ultimately lonely Martha in her shack on the seashore. She lives the life of a beachcomber, reading the messages in the bottles left by the tide, but not answering them, gathering useful articles on the high water mark, making a totally unwanted door-chime from scallop shells.

She sourly observes the outside world through her telescope, and her only visitor is an understandably nervous postman (Jay Manley).

Then into her life comes a stray goose. Though she tries to drive it away, it proves even more stubborn than herself. Left outside the shack during a night of rain, it falls sick, and even Martha's inhospitality is breached.

The goose, of course, is a crowd-pleaser. Jay Manley works it as a rod puppet, pushing the body round on a pair of wheels with one hand, and operating the head with the other.

It runs the gamut of expressiveness, from its "dying swan" act with the glistening eye to boisterously "goosing" Martha in a manner that dear old Emu would have admired. The core of the story is that the goose teaches Martha to rock 'n' roll, in more ways than one.

At the simplest level, it learns to use its beak to change the station on her portable radio from Swing to disco beat. It findsitself a pair of shades in a cupboard, and works out a hilarious goose step. All ends happily and environmentally - the goose flies off with its skein, and we believe they are honking for Martha, and her new lifestyle.

The play had a successful week in Inverness primaries, but has few confirmed bookings so far apart from the Children's Festival. It will make an interesting companion piece to what promises to be the flagship event at the festival - Danny 306 and Me (4 ever), for nine-year-olds and upwards, a joint commission from the admirable David Greig by the Traverse and Birmingham Rep.

His storyline is that international superstar Stella comes home to the Grand Hotel Cumdoon, and remembers her early days and her friendship with bell-boy Danny. It is a story about entering the adult world, and comes with "new writing, new songs" and something variously described as "live animation", "stage animation" and (more frankly) "sophisticated puppetry".

Sadly, many people, find the word "puppetry" a turn-off, thinking it means Muffin the Mule. Hopefully, Danny will continue their education.

Speaking of which, the festival outreach programme continues to grow. Schools performances at the festival sold out within a record 24 hours, a result festival director Tony Reekie ascribes to providing quality children's theatre, at low prices, with a free travel subsidy.

Even so, there are some schools unable to get to the venues, and for them the outreach programme continues for a second year, this time taking TAG's Julius Caesar, Tony Ogogo's story-telling and Susanne Fraser's comedy to 600 children in 12 schools.

Scottish International Children's Festival, box office 0131 220 4349, outreach programme 0131 225 8050Martha: May 15 Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 01224 642230 May 22-23, Traverse, Edinburgh, 0131 228 1404

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