Play on poetic words

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Quangle Wangle Wee Stories Theatre touring until May 25 tel 0131 557 6107

Wee Stories Theatre for Children has become a byword for quality and not by accident. Like a commercial business launching a product into a competitive market, the company tests its productions meticulously. Quangle Wangle, from Wee Stories' early years department, is a case in point.

Virginia Radcliffe, who wrote, directs and co-acts the piece, which is based on four of Edward Lear's nonsense poems, started as she has with all four early years projects so far, by trying it out on her own children. Next, she surrounded herself with talent in the persons of creative director Andy Cannon, composer Timothy Brinkhurst and designer Catherine Lindow.

Putting flesh, paint and performance on the sublime silliness of Lear's nonsense poems is not so much a challenge as an act of creative defiance.

Lindow's design cleverly leaves room for children's wonder and imagination.

Music teachers will warm to the way Brinkhurst can slowly turn a simple song into an unobtrusive lesson in harmony, counterpoint, tempo and rhythm.

Together they create a performance they know to be overlong. Lara Bowen, the company's general manager, explains that they like to have too many good ideas so that they can discard the excess on the advice of their evaluators, in this case primary and nursery pupils in north Edinburgh. "We call them our VIPs," she says, "because they are very important previews to us.

"We find we have to try out in front of at least eight audiences - that's our critical mass - because audiences are so different. We have to average out that many responses to be certain what to keep."

Among the things they keep is a proper sensitivity to their audience.

Radcliffe asks her Gilmorehill audience how many of them had been to the theatre before. Only a few of the hands go up, so she explains the business as "dressing up and playing pretend games, just like you do".

That said, she and her co-actor John Austin become Stella and Stan, two Beckettian children who are strangers to everything around them, always at the point of having to go somewhere else, pitched into a world of singing suitcases and musical hampers of dressing-up clothes. Together they create Lear's curious bestiary, from Mr and Mrs Canary to the dong with the luminous nose, making less of the blue baboon than they do of the Jumblies, with their green heads and blue hands. As Stan says: "It's a lot of nonsense. Good nonsense, though."

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