Chaos, culture and creativity

17th August 2001 at 01:00
Heather Neill is spoilt for choice at the Edinburgh Festival

You don't need to be young to take part in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but it helps. Who, aged over 20, would lie full-length across the pavement in the rain, pretending to be asleep, risking a piper's boot (or a stilt or a vamp's high heel) in the face just to advertise a show? Still, Lucid Dreaming, in which "physical theatre meets cognitive science", may well be logically hyped in this way. It lost out, appropriately enough, to Pandemonium (of which more later) on my schedule. This is the curse of Edinburgh at festival time: wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you could be in three (or 33) other places instead.

The prone student, the Cambridge women in bras advertising their Carol Ann Duffy show ("Poetry can be sexy!"), the "statues" with their white faces, the acrobats and instrumentalists all converge on the high street just below the castle, but their performances are in venues all over the city, some even in the open air.

Just opposite the Hub, HQ of the International Festival, near the high street, is the Quaker Meeting House, a popular venue with youth groups. This year, City of London Freemans School from Surrey is there (until tomorrow) with Making Echoes: Janet Frame at the Fringe, a piece devised by head of drama Philip Tong from the New Zealand writer's short stories.

This is a remarkable achievement for such a young cast (almost all doing drama at GCSE or A-level), combining the abstraction of the idea of suffering caused by fractured relationships with moving, surprisingly mature acting, especially by those playing much younger or older than their years. Cleverly stylised movement (choreographed by ex-Freemans student Zoe Hyde), including a chorus of Fifties ladies, handbags at the ready, wittily conveys the first. Bereavement and childhood rivalry are expressed by more naturalistic acting. Memorable scenes include Joan's initiation into the family of her perpetually smiling cousins, and the unspoken presence of a drowned sister as Winnie spends the day picnicking with her family. Relationships are scrutinised fearlessly and the linked scenes end with "Father" heartbroken as he mourns his wife. Discipline, commitment and imagination shine through.

Alices in Wonderland proliferate on the Fringe as older students look for suitable children's show material. Forbidden Theatre Company's offering is one of three. The young cast take Alice's anxieties about her changing pre-pubescent body a stage further and turn the story into a flashback on her wedding eve. Over-elaborate costumes are sometimes a hindrance and it would have been nice to get more of the excellent singing and dancing, only really given full rein in the Lobster Quadrille. And should the Mad Hatter ever be seen in a flat cap?

The National Youth Music Theatre, celebrating its 25th anniversary, returns to St Mary's Cathedral with a spectacularly ambitious piece - sacred music meets musical theatre in creation. In 1976 the NYMT was in the grounds; now it fills the building with music, movement - and a large audience. Creation myths from around the world are set to new music - often ethereal, sometimes earthy, even jazzy - by Richard Taylor. There is no narrative line, no speech, but the artistic team (led by director choreographer Kay Shepherd) make the most of a talented cast of singers and dancers, backed by the NYMT's own orchestra and choir and a local community choir - some 155 performers in all.

There was a power cut on the evening of my visit, but no one so much as hesitated. The wonderful thing about this company is its combination of group responsibility and encouragement of individual talent. Children as young as 11 could approach members of the audience and not flicker out of role. This is a slick performance that manages to be funny and moving as well. NYMT information: www.nymt.org.uk Pandemonium is an apt word for the Fringe, and two shows actually have that title. Wisepart Productions' musical play retells the stories of Theseus and Pandora's box, sometimes drawing children in, literally, by unwinding the wool from the labyrinth and asking them to hold it.

A multi-talented cast of six play instruments, change character, sing witty songs and exude superhuman energy. Jenifer Toksvig's book and lyrics are funny and the pace often manic. This is a pocket musical comedy for anyone over six. Lucky audience members may even catch chocolate gold coins chucked at them by Midas.

Tickets for Edinburgh Fringe: 0131 226 0000. Web: www.edfringe.com Fuller reviews of some of the shows mentioned and others may be found on www.tes.co.uk

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