Theatre to delight the young ones

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Treats are in store for the under-14s in two weeks as the annual Children's International Theatre Festival opens in Edinburgh. Brian Hayward reports

Other festivals may be coming to Edinburgh this year, but for primary schools and families one that really matters is the Children's International Festival sponsored by the Bank of Scotland and taking place at the end of the month.

What teachers and parents like is the guarantee of quality that comes with festival producers Imaginate. There are 250 children's festivals around the world and director Tony Reekie travels to as many as he can to get the best possible programme for the three- to 14-year-olds in Scotland.

Twelve companies from three home countries - Scotland, England and Wales - and four European countries are showing their talent. Denmark, a world leader in children's theatre, is back this year of course, along with Canada and Germany, and The Netherlands is represented once again.

"It's a matter of chance who's hot at the right time and who's available," says Mr Reekie. "For some shows you wait for years, they are in such huge demand."

The plays are listed in the programme in ascending audience age, starting pre-school with Cloudland, in which the Travelling Light Theatre Company tells the story of the light-as-a-bubble children who live in the clouds, and the singing Frog of the Dutch Theater Terra, up to the Welsh Theatr Iolo's offering for 12-year-olds and over. Bison and Sons is set in a forgotten back street, where three brothers sit in their dirty kitchen, bickering and fighting about who will take over from their father, while he pleads with the bank manager to save the family business. A play about sibling rivalry and the power of love, it promises to live up to the company's reputation for innovative and provocative drama.

If the choice of plays is careful, so is the festival organisation. To help teachers who bring school parties to Edinburgh - about 90 schools from all over Scotland are bringing more than 6,000 children to what for many is their first theatre experience - the festival supplies all manner of useful extras, including a guide, free coach parking, road crossing patrols, packed lunch eating areas, little pedestals in the theatre toilets, children's identity badges and bus identity posters.

Though the festival attracts a huge audience, Imaginate sees the importance of taking shows on the road. Glasgow, Inverness and Shetland are targeted this year. Five companies are touring, though only Theatr Iolo is going to all three destinations.

Cas Public, a Canadian dance company, is taking If You Go Down to the Woods, about the things that frighten us (for six to 12s), to Eden Court in Inverness.

Another one-stop journey, to the Tron in Glasgow, is being made by the Lords of the Railway. The target audience is six years plus, but that may be elastic enough for a few fathers to pick up on Theater Handgemenge of Germany's story about two model railway enthusiasts. Absorbed in their miniature world of engines, stations, signals and permanent way, they start telling a story about a boy who loses his toy dog on a train. Soon the story takes over when the boy's father sets off for Warsaw in hot pursuit.

The miniature train set becomes the third player in this collectors'


Annie Wood, formerly of the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company and now director of the Polka Theatre in London, returns to Glasgow and Shetland with a show for three-year-olds and over. The Selfish Giant is Oscar Wilde's perennial story about the owner of a beautiful garden who is punished with perpetual winter until he allows children to enjoy it.

A more acceptable moral comes with Gruppe 38 of Denmark, who visit Shetland and Inverness with A Sonatina (Mr Reekie's prize catch this year), a version of the Little Red Riding Hood story for over sixes. The company's twist is to have an egg play the girl, a potato for the grandmother (What big eyes you have!) and a potato masher for the wolf. But first the live chicken has to lay the egg.

The same company also brings to Edinburgh The Ballad of Marian and Rob (for eights and over). Rob lives in the forest, steals from the rich, gives to the poor and never washes his hair, and Marian's father is a policeman. The creators say the play is about that subject beloved of children, the incredible stupidity of adults.

This theme of child-sized versions of famous stories is carried on by the German Puppen-Theater der Stadt Halle's Beauty and the Beast (for sevens-plus), by Het Laagland of The Netherlands with King A (for Arthur) for eights and over, and the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company with its adaptation of Cyrano (for 10s-plus).

Not least, two Scottish companies complete the list. Visible Fictions Theatre Company presents Emily's House, exploring how children deal with change (for nines-plus), and there is an unmissable opportunity for four-year-olds and over to Spend a Penny with Shona Reppe and her puppets.

Children's International Theatre Festival, Edinburgh, May 25-June 2; on tour to Glasgow, Inverness and Shetland, May 26-June 11For details, tel 0131 225

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