Children very much on the fringe

25th August 2000 at 01:00
The festival has little to entertain young people, but Brian Hayward found one company that takes its audience seriously

If the Fringe is at all representative of contemporary performing arts, then it amply demonstrates the triviality of most of the work on offer to children. The Fringe programme admits as much, listing the productions as "children's shows", as though they were spin-offs from Saturday morning television. When they fall short of expectation, you don't know whom to feel sorry for most, the bored children or the parents with hopes of sharing an arts experience with their offspring and maybe turning them on to live theatre.

A case in point is the In Touch Theatre Company, a rather grand title for the two skilled and unstinting actresses who do all the writing and performing and the unseen helper who switches on the lights and music. Their A Box full of JourneysAround the World in 40 Minutes seems to promise inventiveness and phrases such as "save a rainforest in Brazil" imply some contemporary seriousness, but the "round the world" is little more than playing children's games with the dressing-up box, dusting down a few racial stereotypes in the process. As for Brazilian rainforest, the message to the children was merely "Stop buying spray-on deodorants".

Nothing points up the failings of this kind of children's theatre more than the disregard of the target audience (though their claim that the play is "suitable for ages 4-14" suggests no particular target at all). In Touch is skilled at comedy but the jokes about Richard Branson and Swiss cheese are pitched at parents. The children hear laughter they do not understand, which is an experience few of us enjoy. Presumably performers do this to keep the parents happy, though the better way to achieve that end would be to engross and captivate teir children.

Alan Ayckbourn's Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays was advertised by the Out of the Blue Theatre, but unfortunately disappeared before the Festival opened, so hopes had to be pinned on the stalwart Leicestershire Youth Arts, celebrating 21 years on the Fringe by staging four plays and two musicals every day for a fortnight - 72 performances in all - encouraged by sell-out signs going up at St Ann's Community Centre.

LYA is an independent charity and the smiling face of educational redundancy. Bob Staunton and Jim Dutton brought the Leicester schools to Edinburgh until 1992, when they both retired. The county still wanted the drama work but had no staff to do it, so seamlessly the pair created the LYA.

Apart from its annual triumph on the Fringe, it runs playgroup, junior, senior and youth theatre groups, performs twice a year in Loughborough and this summer is engaged in a three-country millennium project with France and Germany.

Of their six productions, I saw The Demon Headmaster, a playscript from the popular novel by Gillian Cross. It tells of how clever Dinah, a Carol Vorderman in plaits, foils the headmaster who has hypnotised his school into good order and discipline as a preliminary for mastering the whole country.

Mr Dutton provides a clever perspective wooden framework to enclose the action and an exterior for linking narration. Mr Staunton directs six young people with masks, acute memory and youthful zest who play out the story in a pacey, focused style that held the children with its mystery and excitement while giving their parents enough of an allegory about politics and public order.

Not for nothing is the all-important answer in the quiz "1984" and, as Dinah observes, "I knew there was something wrong with the school, the children were all so well-behaved."

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