Thoughtful, quirky and always fun

11th June 2004 at 01:00
As the Children's International Theatre Festival draws to a close, Brian Hayward gives his verdict on five productions

King A

Het Laagland

from The Netherlands

for eight-year-olds and over

Good theatre is like good food: you have to start with the right ingredients. Here are four men and a woman with the right stuff.

One can sound like Lee Marvin and a seagull; another can do a slow handstand balanced on a tower of four chairs; another has the guileful eyes of a magician; the fourth man has the bluff innocence of the born hero; and the woman is a sword-fighting tomboy who has only to let her hair down and put on a skirt to be a seductive Guinevere.

In everyday clothes and with the help of only a score of chairs, five swords and five flags, they tell the story of King Arthur in a disturbingly pre-modern way. They take the tale of Excalibur in the stone, the cleansing of the kingdom, the friendship of Arthur and Sir Lancelot and the fatal trust of a wife to a friend, and play it all with a youthful innocence you could never confuse with naivety.

The flag-waving, stamping dance to "We Will Rock You", the resolute harmony singing, the ferocious clanging sword fights, all insist that being a knight was a serious business, but these impressive warlords make common cause of evil with child-like simplicity because for children justice is an easy game and "It isn't fair!" is the most final of judgments.

What makes parents and teachers uneasy is this rousing endorsement of the role of the hero, of his demand for noblesse oblige, for the code of honour and the principle of majority rule. What Arthur proposes to defend with his sword is hardly less than democracy with an ethical dimension. We leave the theatre wondering why something so natural and obvious to children, and spoiled only by the accidental meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere, we now find so impossible a concept.

A Sonatina

Gruppe 38

from Denmark

for six-year-olds and over

When the curtain rises to reveal a battered farm pick-up truck, a hen and a double bass, it does rather lift the spirits. The hen though, it must be said, is a disappointment.

It has to lay an egg before the play can start, but it does this off-stage. It also has a speaking part later in the show, which it steadfastly refuses to contribute, probably because of the way it has been pushed around and verbally abused by the leading lady.

But in this show, Leading Lady verbally abuses anyone who upsets her, mostly her hen-pecked husband and sullen, unthinking son, but also the small boy sitting in front of me who opined that her potato-masher was clean when clearly it wasn't.

With this hen, family and audience it took her a full 30 minutes to start the play, a half hour of fine and almost wordless comedy, from a trio who know all about comic timing and the power of relationships.

Once the pick-up truck is unfolded to make the stage, she can begin her story, to the accompaniment of her son's trumpet and piano accordion and her husband's double-bass. It is the familiar Red Riding Hood tale but with the unfamiliar cast of the new-laid egg as the girl, a warty potato as the grandmother and the potato masher as the wolf.

Leading Lady rather runs amok as the wolf, snapping her crocodile-like handles and squeezing out grandmother's entrails with almost too much zest.

A relief to us all, then, that the men had confiscated the shotgun and her Hunter had to exact retribution with a fly swat. When Leading Lady forces open the wolf's jaws, miraculously the egg is unbroken and grandmother can be reconstituted. Even the hen enjoyed that.

Spend a Penny

Shona Reppe Puppets of Scotland

for four-year-olds and over

The very watchable Shona Reppe, well-known for her brilliant work as "the stray dog from outer space" with the Catherine Wheels Theatre Company, specialises in shows for the early years age group.

She makes small theatre for small people, working across a table top covered with a miscellany of props, all of them stopping places on the eccentric, peripatetic journeys of her imagination.

At regular intervals she interrupts the story for The News, which she announces through a head-sized frame. It acknowledges that what she is doing is television in the theatre.

This time the table is covered with boxes, each of them coin-in-the-slot machines. There is only one penny and it opens each of them, finding inside little glove puppets, each with its own problem or affectation. Chief among these is the bald puppet, unable to come to terms with his lack of hair and trying out a series of unsatisfactory solutions before settling on a blue wig with baubles.

The young audience were with Ms Reppe every inch of the way, and yet any Brechtian parents might have been struck by the alienation that infuses her work. The puppetry is cursory and you can watch her lips move. She deliberately undercuts the whole performance with the more urgent search for her lost rabbit. She tries to tempt it out of the audience with a carrot. In brief episodes of black theatre in the performance, it creeps in to eat the props, finally even the purse and the precious penny.

When Ms Reppe reclaims the objects by unzipping its stomach, she dismisses it with a curt "Zip yourself up!" Like all her adult asides, it seems as much for her amusement as ours and all part of the distance she keeps.

Fascinating but I wanted this separate person to be part of the performance.


Theater Terra

from The Netherlands

for four-year-olds and over

Like writers in mainstream theatre, children's theatre playwrights scour bookshelves for tales to turn into plays.

It must have seemed a safe bet for Theater Terra to follow its success in winning the Netherlands' most prestigious Hans Snoek prize for children's theatre by turning to one of the apparently much-loved Frog picture books by Max Velthuijs. Unfortunately, the one they chose is the one where Frog is worried about moving house, changing schools and leaving his friends. While this may be a wise choice for parents looking for a bedtime story for an anxious four-year-old, to expect a theatre full of children with the same problem seems extreme.

A particular hurdle in the adaptation concerns the central figure, because any chirpy puppet from his tribe of amphibians is going to have to hop out of the shadow of Kermit. And not only Frog: one or two of the other characters bore more than a fleeting resemblance to the much-loved Muppets band. Call it homage if you like.

For the company's really original contribution to the story, look to the music, declared from the outset with some liquid violin playing and carried on throughout the performance with some delightfully lyrical songs.

The style of puppetry is basically black theatre without the black. The audience has to quickly get used to Pig, Hare and Duck being walked around by very large, muscular men. Most effective was the use of scaled-down versions of the puppets to create the effects of distance. Who could fail to be moved by the cheerful sight of Rat sailing away in his little boat?

Lords of the Railway

Theater Handgemenge

from Germany

for six-year-olds and over

This is theatre of teasing ambiguity. At first sight, it looks like a paradise for boys, and even more for their dads, with a soundtrack of "Sentimental Journey" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo".

Two youngish men are about to play with their railway set. We never find out anything about them; they talk very little, in unanswered fragments.

They say the railway is 120th scale as they take the dustsheets from the metres of track, station and valley-spanning bridge. Then they unveil the star of the show, a magnificent steam locomotive.

They have an engine driver's cap and public address system for the station announcements and share the roles with a practised hand overtake over routine. So far, so normal, though we notice the professionalism of the way they make the trains run on time is undercut by serrations of rivalry.

One of them raises the stakes by creating a new character among the figures on the platform. It is his son, arriving on the train from Berlin to live in their new house on the hill. From that moment, these quirky, unpredictable men zigzag their way through an improvised story that almost swamps their timetabled efficiency with chaotic humanity.

The boy has left his toy dog on the train and is disconsolate. This dog-on-wheels, which they have in life-size, is a hopple-popple: its walk is undulating because, they explain, its frame rests on eccentric axes, like the locomotive's pistons. And, we could add, like its owners.

The train from Berlin has gone on to Warsaw. After a vain but eventful train journey, the dog is returned. "It was a mistake to go to Warsaw," one says. Ah, well.

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