All the world is found on stage

19th May 2006 at 01:00
There are heaps of treats for children, but this year's eclectic selection of festival productions is also strong on parent appeal, says Brian Hayward

For teachers and parents, next week's Children's International Theatre Festival is only a matter of choosing your title and age-range - the quality is taken care of by director Tony Roper. He travels to find it.

"There are more than 200 children's festivals round the world. I was in Denmark, then back home for a day and then in Sweden where I saw seven plays on Saturday. Now it's Edinburgh, and after that four more festivals in June."

Asked how he keeps so enthusiastic, his answer is simple: "Even though most of the plays may be average, there is always one with a spark of passion or a clever idea, and that keeps you going. Better still, you hit upon a play that gets complicated ideas across to children and offers something to the adults as well, and then you have something special - like Goodbye Mr Muffin by the Danish Teater Refleksion.

"I was lucky to catch this one early. It's simply a boy and his guinea pig - in this case an actor and a sweet puppet called Mr Muffin. He's very old and grey and talks about his family and when he was young and strong and could carry a whole cucumber on his back.

"It's completely unsentimental. At the end, the children are invited to come up and eat some of Mr Muffin's almonds, but they really come to talk about their own pets that have died."

Alongside the eight companies plucked from foreign festivals are three from Scotland, including Plutot La Vie. Tim Licata - the company founder who chose the name - explains that it came from the time he and colleagues were at a clown theatre school in Paris and they saw a postcard of graffiti from the Paris riots of 1968. In their show, A Clean Sweep, they "choose to give life" to a variety of brushes.

"Every brush has its own character, and all these interact with each other.

It's a show with a fixed structure, but many spontaneous improvisations."

In its way, the performance illuminates Roper's point about the "child and adult" audience.

"We devised the show at last year's Fringe for adults," explains Licata, "but we found that children were enjoying it as well. People were saying how 'difficult' it must be to do a show entirely as mime, but the children realised right away that all we were doing was telling a story without words. Jacques Tati (the French filmmaker and comic actor) is one of our inspirations. Clowns are simple, but they are not stupid. Rather, they're stupefied by the world."

Another 2005 Fringe success was Allan Irvine's dance piece One To Grow On, which went on to the prestigious choreography showcase, the British Dance Edition in Leeds. With the addition of two newly devised pieces by Frank McConnel and Ethelinda Lashley-Johnston, it makes up the Triple Bill from contemporary dance company Freshmess.

"The three pieces are very different in their style, their dance and their music, which is exactly what I wanted," explains Irvine. "We have no manifesto - we do what we do. It is for people of all ages, but maybe young people in particular. We all work differently but we all try to encourage the dancers to push themselves, to work outside their comfort zones."

The choreographers push themselves as well. Although they have been doing an annual show since 1996, their funding only allows them to get together for two months of the year - the rest of the time they have to survive on other performance or teaching work. In these two months they get just 15 days with the dancers, which means that they will be devising and perfecting right up to the day before they open.

Another newly devised show is the Dundee Rep's production of Monkey, a stage version of a Chinese 6th-century legend written by Colin Teevan for the Young Vic Company five years ago and not performed since. It is jointly directed by Dominic Hill of the Rep and Janet Smith, the director of the Scottish Dance Theatre, whose companies share the Rep's premises.

"Janet choreographs the fights and the dance," explains Hill, "but she also has a fantastic eye for the stage image and the character's physicality.

We've deliberately cast every member of both companies so that every dancer acts and all the actors do movement, because the process itself is very important for the individuals and for the company.

"It is profound, moving and humorous and a perfect answer to the search for a production to integrate the talents of the two Dundee companies.

Children's International Theatre Festival

May 23-29 in Edinburgh

May 27-June 6 touring to Glasgow, Peebles, Dunfermline, Falkirk, Paisley, Stirling, Shetland Isles and Balmaclellan

tel 0131 225 8050

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