Fringe fantasy and theatrics

17th August 2001 at 01:00
Brian Hayward has been joining young audiences at the Edinburgh Festival to sample the delights on offer this summer.

Acruise liner has sunk somewhere in the tropics and the only survivors are two members of the ship's orchestra, the triangle player and the bassist. Together they have cobbled together a raft from the flotsam, furnished it with whatever floated near them - packing cases, parasols, odd items of clothing, driftwood - and, surviving on champagne and bananas, they wait for rescue. While they wait, they pass the time by retelling their favourite story, Treasure Island, improvising all the props and costume from the salvage that surrounds them.

This is a classic Wee Stories Theatre for Children scenario, play-making like children for children but with all the wit, style and invention that Andy Cannon, the artistic director of Wee Stories Theatre, and the formidable Iain Johnstone can bring to a novel they clearly respect as much as they enjoy. The pair of them play all the characters, sometimes two at a time, and manipulate their flotsam with elastic ease. You would expect to pretend empty champagne bottles hold rum and for them to stand in for telescopes, but also a folded parasol held behind your back with the handle over your shoulder will screech "Pieces of eight" in your ear with very little encouragement.

Theatre like this makes nonsense of age grouping; the watching children are entranced and the adults hardly have time to indulge their nostalgia for the ingenuity of the storytelling. At the end, when Long John Silver has escaped, the pirates are all dead, the Hispaniola is safely home and evening falls around the raft, all the excitement, danger and laughter is laid to rest as Andy Cannon plucks his diminutive guitar and Iain Johnstone thumbs his double bass to sing "Red Sails in the Sunset", after which the audience could only roar its approval.

There is more roaring from The Gruffalo at St Columba's in Tall Stories' satisfying adaptation of Julia Donaldson's award-winning story of the mouse who first invents a terrifying friend to protect it from its enemies, only to discover the awesome creature actually exists and that it needs to find a ruse to defend itself against its supposed protector. All those who are prey to childhood fears find comfort in the ingenious tale of how the weak can protect themselves.

Sharon McArdle plays the mouse with just the right blend of cheekiness and vulnerability, and the basso profundo Felix Hayes can do monster and imp with equal ease. The versatile Thomas Warwick sings and acts his way through everything else, including the predatory fox as a cockney chancer, the owl as a venerable Battle of Britain ace ruined by age and gin and as a maraca-shaking, rubber-boned, rumba-dancing rattlesnake in a sombrero. The result is full houses of enthusiastic children.

Dr Johnson thought that reading Milton was the reward for a lifetime spent in scholarship and so, in its way, was watching Wisepart rollicking their way through Pandemonium, a "Greek myth adventure". The slender central thread is the story of Pandora and her box. Plaited around it are stories of other Olympians and legendary figures, which I imagine leaves parents with some explaining to do since classical studies now are not what they were.

Author Jenifer Toksvig's angle is that Pandora was another Eve, letting loose evil into the world. Poignantly, she adds another "evil" to the box: hope, that persuades mankind its paradise lost might be regained.

The fresh-faced innocence of the piece might suit a school or youth theatre, though I doubt they could emulate the engaging and talented Wisepart company, who not only act and sing but also pick up flutes, saxophones and the rest to provide their own orchestral backing.

Out of the cheap 'n' cheerful drawer came the Californian Travel Troupe and their Robin Hood, which started off as a revisionist version, told by his wife, of his "merry men who weren't merry and weren't men". That would be impossible to do as children's theatre, of course, and soon the production settled into something more or less traditional, heavily dependent on a limerick song.

Oddly, the cast asked the audience to make appropriate noises whenever certain words were used, but the children tried to get involved with the story instead.

The deadly arrows to the heart of this production were the jokes that deliberately excluded the children: "Tell it in every hamlet!" "That's right, we'll use Shakespeare to spread the word!" Children's theatre? I don't think so.

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