Vikings, pillage and porridge

18th September 1998 at 01:00
As arts and drama specialists meet to discuss the future of children'stheatre (right), Brian Hayward watches Hopscotch in action

In a few years, Hopscotch has crossed over from being the maverick of children's theatre to becoming something very like an institution. It has done it on a very simple recipe - to act out any topic of Scottish history likely to be taught in primary schools, in 55 minutes, to all or most of the school, and pack every minute with facts and laughs.

It is a philosophy that found director Grant Smeaton, rather than the other way around. As an actor tired of waiting for the phone to ring, he remembered missing out on Scottish history as a boy, and thinking that theatre companies made no real contact with children. He found a willing accomplice in researcher and writer Ross Stenhouse, who is almost surprised to find himself now the author of documented hilarity reaching from St Ninian to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Just now the company is rampaging about the land with The Vikings in Scotland, with the help of a long boat, The Rough Guide to Raping and Pillaging in Scotland, and four hard-working actors who give you every salient name, date and circumstance from the sacking of Iona in 795 to the Treaty of Perth in 1266.

The clue to the company style is the copy of The Beano one of the characters carries. History is robustly cartooned, and motive and reason reduced to playground level, which is generally about right for much of mankind's activity. Character is put on with a helmet and taken off with a wig. Gerry McHugh, for example, in quick time plays the guitar, and Thorstein, Kenneth McAlpin, an unnamed farmer and his nervous sheep, Ketil Flatnose, Brother Malcolm, Hakon Paulsson and Ian MacAskill. The unmistakable last-named gives a weather forecast for the Firth of Clyde on the eve of the Battle of Largs - Hopscotch never forgets the teachers.

Otherwise, the company sails by its two stars of historical veracity and sweet daftness, carefully differentiating between the Norse and Danish Vikings and almost in the same breath confusing the desire for pillage with a desire for porridge. It satisfies child and teacher, and is carrying Hopscotch on a growing wave of popularity. "Two years ago, we thought we had reached saturation point," says Grant Smeaton. "Now we are playing to double that audience."

Remarkably, Hopscotch's forward planning is the most confident in Scottish theatre. Vikings tours for four months, and then re-appears in January (some dates still available). It has to make way for the pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, when Hopscotch will send on tour three separate troupes to cope with the demand.

Afterwards comes The Stuarts in February and The Picts in August, and between them something completely different. Julius Caesar, not the Roman play but an original 55-minute theatrical biography, will be the company's first venture outside Scottish inspiration, and they wonder what the reception will be. On the far horizon is Hansel and Gretel, the millennium pantomime, and, yes, the company has already taken bookings for 2000.

All this is happening without help from the Scottish Arts Council. Hopscotch is supported by three charities, and the Educational Institute of Scotland, while the Royal Bank of Scotland has given them Pounds 5,000 to print their glossy flyers, programmes and wallcharts.

Spreading out from their Glasgow base, Vikings will reach Aberdeen and Inverness, and have the regular week in Dumfries and Galloway (thanks to teacher demand and local authority support).

The show cries out to be toured in the Hebrides, where they make all too little of their Norse heritage, and the Northern Isles, but that, sadly, the company cannot afford.

Hopscotch, telephone: 0141 440 2025

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