Fishers of children;Arts;Theatre

9th October 1998 at 01:00
Children's theatre is so underrated in Scotland that companies such as Visible Fictions look abroad for their texts and audiences. Brian Hayward reports

Listening to the car radio on the way home after seeing Visible Fictions' new production, Henry and the Seahorse, I heard the reporter say that the Book of Remembrance in Omagh had been signed by all sorts of people, ``from Prime Minister Tony Blair to schoolchildren''. Which was his handy way of saying ``from the highest in the land to the lowest'', and neatly points up our negative attitude to children and, by extension, to those who work for them, be they teachers or theatre companies.

It is an attitude that exasperates Visible Fictions which, like other arts companies with contacts abroad, is only too aware that other western countries give children's theatre the same kind of funding, resource and status as any other kind of theatre. Denmark tends to crop up quickly in their conversations, with its 70 children's theatre companies, 35 of them with their own theatres. In this climate of opinion, unsurprisingly Visible Fictions tends to look overseas for its texts and, increasingly, for its audiences.

The trend was set with The Red Balloon last year, the first Scottish production to be invited to Take-Off, the annual North of England children's theatre festival. It is a supportive, sharing affair, with companies, sponsors and promoters networking at an international level.

Visible Fictions' success there led to an appearance in Toronto, which administrator Susan Gray is now using as a springboard for a six-week tour around Canada and the US next spring.

This pattern of domestic tour in autumn, followed by an overseas tour in spring, is largely dictated by the Scottish Arts Council's decision to give the company only annual "project'' funding. Its continuing contact with Take-Off - it is taking Henry and the Seahorse to Barrow-in-Furness this month - hopefully guarantees a shop window on the world, though its order book already includes invitations to Turkey and Israel, and a request for its work at the opening of the new performance complex in Singapore in 2001.

These may be the distant horizons for Henry, for which I have to say the title is a bit of a come-on. The seahorse plays a very small part in the business. It is a life-size, toy seahorse, which young Henry uses as a lucky charm, able to grant wishes. It does, and at the same time it doesn't. There is magic in this play, but not that kind of magic.

What the play has is that genuine sense of insight into the child experience, the state of not being taken seriously, of not being listened to, of fearful imagining, when your best friend is the dog. This perceptiveness of Soren Skjold's text, translated by Sarah Argent, is well served by the company of two. The elastic Harry Ward plays Henry, and some of the best theatrical moments come with his use of the two trestle ladders that are the set; Claire Knight adds on mother, father, sister, friend and dog.

She plays Henry's parents wearing a skirt, with one arm through a business suit, complete with shirt and tie, on a hanger. Galling for a few fathers, perhaps, but directorial strokes like this justify VF's policy of playing to ``family'' audiences as well as schools. That it can, is the proper tribute to its all-round quality. The music, for example, is specially composed by Tommy Fowler, who has worked with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra among others, and doesn't pander to supposed children's tastes. Result: after the initial shock of strangeness, the children embrace it, minor keys and all. It demonstrates what children's theatre people know: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gosling.

For touring details, telephone Visible Fictions on 0131 229 7404 ext 2137

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