Finding a Fringe performance to please children and parents can be tricky. Brian Hayward reports on the good, the bad and the puppet shows
More than anything else, the children's shows at the Edinburgh festival are for the locals - who takes a young family on holiday to Edinburgh in August? But even though Lothian parents might have lots of practice at picking the golden goose from the turkeys, every year the Fringe programme sets its traps, and every year parents have to ponder, pin in hand, over the often misleading hype for the 34 children's shows and the 14 musicals on offer. There's a lot riding on their choice, and the pound;5 a tiny head for the ticket is the least of it. A child's love of the theatre, and its faith in its parent, could be at stake.
The safe play for the very young is puppetry, though it pains me to support the prejudice that puppets are for children (the most desolating performance of Wozzeck I ever saw was by a Canadian puppet company). Nevertheless, this year there are 10 puppet companies to choose from, ranging from Scotland's own Sylvia Troon and Ian Turbitt, to the authentic Indonesian shadow puppets and the Fru-Fru from Slovenia.
Another safe play for the young are companies that seldom disappoint because they don't promise very much. Mr Boom's show offers song and dance, Bodger and Badger offer lots of mayhem and mashed potato, while Tumtumtinker's performance is 45 minutes of entertaining baby-minding, suitable for those aged 4-12, who can "leave those adults to lunch outside!" But for the parents that like to share experiences with their children, the choice is more difficult. The Fringe can sometimes feel like theatre's equivalent of so-called vanity publishing, where the actors enjoy the performance more than you do. You get the sneaky feeling that some productions are the fruit of a drama course, and that the trip to the Fringe was the main lure for the actors, as well as the end of their learning curve.
In the end, all that most people can do is "go for the title", but I ignored this advice when I ducked the Edinburgh Acting School's version of Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant to go instead for its Juliet's Revenge. This was Shakespeare made into soap opera, with Romeo ditching Juliet to take up with Rosaline again. Mariela Stevenson creates her variation with quotations and references from the bard's other plays, linked with shameless doggerel, each enjoyable in its own way.
Rather more expensively, students from a San Francisco college created the California Travel Troupe simply to come to the Fringe. Their programme includes The Velveteen Rabbit, and Julia Butterfly, a stirring environmental tale about a Californian pastor's daughter who has been living 180 feet up a giant redwood for nearly two years, in defiance of the timber company that wants to make garden furniture out of the ancient trees. The Rabbit is advertised as suitable for ages 5-14. Luckily none of the older age group turned up - the production, with its sweet Toy Fairy and loveable hulk of a stuffed Rabbit, was better suited to the small pre-school audience that attended.
A good bet for both parents and children is one of the "popular science" shows. Dr Bunhead sets up his laboratory on stage at the Famous Grouse and borrows his young assistants from the audience to demonstrate the energy in food, wowing us with such japes as combusting custard powder and fireworks
made out of jelly babies. He freezes a banana in liquid nitrogen and uses it to hammer a 10-inch nail into wood and smashes a frozen onion into smithereens. There are other magic shows on the Fringe, but here the conjuror explains the tricks as he does them.
Storytelling at the Netherbow Theatre features the company Wee Stories For Children in Labyrinth. This is basically Theseus and the Minotaur, which you might think is neither a wee story, nor for children. But it is not mere storytelling either. It's a lively, sympathetic piece of performance theatre, taking the storyteller all over the theatre and some of the audience all over the stage. Happy endings in children's theatre are always distressing, but here the audience voted for it, and so Theseus returned with a white sail instead, and King Aegeus on the cliff top leapt for joy, unfortunately losing his footing as he did so...
There are 14 musicals aimed at young audiences. From The Boy Friend to Fame, you could round up a sizeable slice of western musical theatre in less than a week - and buy the CD to clear your head afterwards if you needed to. Not that you would after The Ragged Child, an "in-house" production by Fringe-regulars the National Youth Music Theatre. The NYMT takes the cream of young singing and acting talent from these islands and trains and directs them to the highest professional standards. The individual performances are accomplished and affecting, but what stays in the mind is the discipline of the company, how on a beat of a quaver they turn like a shoal of fish to change the stage-picture, how exactly they sing every syllable of the score, how absorbed they are at every moment of the two hour show. Young people's theatre doesn't come any better than this.