Kate Clanchy on plays and shows. Excess and chaos are both the hazard and the joy of the Edinburgh Fringe. The lovely compact city centre, crossed by closes and alleys, laden with cafes and clubs, packed with boisterous young people handing out fliers for their latest interpretation of Metamorphosis is bliss for students, heaven for older teenagers - but a maze for parents and teachers in search of a little decent theatre either for or by young people.
Ironically, it is the smallest children who are best catered for. Scotland has two excellent serious entertainers for the under fives: the much loved Mr Boom, who has a cymbal on his head, an imaginary dog, and a repertoire of quirky imaginative songs; and the new Happy Gang who have put together a crafted careful but joyous show about haggis. Both are sufficiently established to risk the financial hazards of the fringe.
The market for older children's shows is even tougher. Top professional companies are listed side by side with students out to make a quick buck to support their revue - and parents have little chance of finding out which is which. A few companies risk it nonetheless. The Shoestring Players from New York have eight years of golden reviews to rely on. Theirs is the ideal fringe show: no set, few costumes, just 12 highly trained superfit bodies and a percussionist. They tell folk tales - dark authentic hilarious ones, all thieves and monsters and castles - in a visual, physical, ensemble style and exude energy and skill in a way that few British companies can match.
Open Hand Theatre Company at Edinburgh's sympathetic theatre workshop are equally visually striking however. They too have movement, singing and dance down to a precise - and expressive - art. They must have needed a rather larger van though, since they use a huge range of masks and costumes. Their Ten in a Bed is an almost alarmingly real recreation of the Ahlbergs' popular reinterpretation of fairy tales. Because everything in Open Hand's world is stylised - school, home, games - and because real actors continuously interact with puppets - a real mother with a lively glove puppet baby for example - the puppet creatures in the heroine's bed really do seem to cross the boundary between fantasy and reality. This is delightful in the case of the three furry bears, but possibly a little alarming when it comes to the giant.
Theatre Workshop also shelter West Lothian Youth Theatre, one of Scotland's biggest, liveliest groups. They perform classic youth theatre: inclusive Brechtian historical pieces, scripted by Raymond Ross. This year's Wee Magic Stane ambitiously tackled the story of Robert the Bruce and the stolen stone of destiny. Miraculously, the show steered almost clear of cliche, helped along by an army of women, an anti-heroic Bruce and a couple of comical turncoat English soldiers.
"Proud Edward's Army" has long been replaced in Edinburgh by the annual invasion of "Tannoys" - loud English people - making WLYT one of the few shows genuinely to involve local people. Sadly however this excellent organisation faces extinction from cuts. Perhaps they should talk to Leicestershire Youth Arts hanging on grimly for a 16th year after converting themselves into a private company. The resulting umbrella organisation covers youth dance - their Ha Jo to the music of Jimi Hendrix won a Fringe First award this year - a TIE company with a separate children's show, an exploration of mental health and a range of youth theatre productions.
These last have evolved what amounts to a house style: concise, vigorous adaptations of classic literature performed in a disciplined ensemble style. Young actors are shown to their best, and also learn and develop. Thus the young and sometimes unsure actors in this year's Kes or Alice in Wonderland may yet, if the organisation survives, perform in a show as pacey, sharp and moving as this year's stark production of Animal Farm. It is a system which encourages team work rather than stars, but has certainly bred them in the shape of Kate Jacques who plays both Antipholuses in the LYA's Comedy of Errors and in Stuart Smith who turned in a compelling Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.
Nottinghamshire TIE seemed to be the only youth theatre in Edinburgh still to be securely funded. Their work is as challenging as ever - an attentive and moving adaptation of Lizzy Dripping, a charged complex Measure for Measure and a production of Alan Ahlberg's Funny Bones by their superb integrated special needs company.
Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire's players are always conspicuous on the streets with their bright T-shirts and deeply excited faces. They prove that for the moment and despite the hazards, ambitious youth theatre can still find an audience on the Fringe and benefit enormously by doing so.
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