Wishes, witches and wonder

Brian Hayward looks ahead to the 13th annual Children's International Theatre Festival on May 27 to June 5

Every primary teacher around Edinburgh knows that the best way to buy good theatre experiences for children is not to try the Festival Fringe, which can be hit or miss, but to plump instead for the goodies that Imaginate director Tony Reekie has cherry-picked for the Bank of Scotland Children's International Theatre Festival.

Now in its 13th year and established in its three homes of the Traverse, Royal Lyceum and Garage theatres in central Edinburgh, the festival may not have a catchy title but it reflects what you get, even if half of the performances are from no further away than Paisley or Glasgow, and is none the worse for that.

The festival opens on Monday with the furthest-travelled production, the gender-bending Bill's New Frock for over-eights, which comes hot from a lengthy tour of California in a co-production between the Paisley-based Visible Fictions Theatre Company and the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum.

Among the cream of children's theatre from across Europe comes Peter Rinderknecht from Switzerland with Portofino Ballad, a tale of family and freedom based around a cuckoo clock, suitable for eight-year-olds and older. From the Netherlands, Danstheater Dee brings Double Cross-Grained, a physical and slap-stick tale of two kitchen maids and a contrary butler that is danced rather than spoken, to entertain four to eight-year-olds.

Imaginate works hard to give the festival a national profile. Fund-raiser Astrid McElwaine has combed the lists of the rich and benevolent to subsidise ticket prices and coach hire for schools that come from the Borders, central Scotland, Aberdeenshire, the Highlands and the Western Isles. This year no more than half of the 116 schools in the audience will be from Edinburgh and the Lothians.

For the Northern Isles, however, Edinburgh is a ferry and a bridge too far, so the festival goes to them. The two Danish companies at the festival (and remember, Denmark is to children's theatre as Sweden is to furniture) will tour Shetland from June 4-10.

Teater Patrasket will take the story of A Strange Man (for five to 10-year-olds), strange because he is pink when everyone else is green and he walks forwards instead of backwards. Fittingly for a story about being different, it is told in rap rhythm, to the sound of a sousaphone, by actors with long noses. Our Wonderful World (for over-11s) promises to be another life-affirming production from Meridiano Teatret, relating the experience of a man about to get his big career break just when his mother begins to slip into dementia.

Although Mr Reekie finds the show "poignant" and "spell-binding", it is proving the hardest to sell. Meridiano says it is for anyone who is a son or daughter or is, or may be, a parent, which is the nearest serious children's theatre ever comes to "a family show".

Seriousness is a defining quality of good children's theatre and seldom more obvious than in the moving and gentle Dr Korczak's Example staged by the TAG Theatre Company, a play for over-12s that grew out of its impressive political education programme, now at the end of its four-year cycle. It tells the story of the eminent paediatrician and children's author whose visionary work in establishing children's rights and responsibilities in his Warsaw ghetto orphanage was brutally cut short by the Nazis in 1942.

Another festival revival is Treasure Island (for eight-plus years), the Wee Stories Theatre For Children production that I thought was the highlight of last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

For younger spectators (three to seven years), the company stages Wee Witches, written by Virginia Radcliffe, head of the company's early years work. She likes to road-test her scripts and scenarios and tries out lines such as "Wee Witches are funny, Wee Witches are silly, they wear woolly vests when it gets a bit chilly" on nursery classes and her two young daughters before inking them into the script. It is an aspect of the perfectionism that marks her work as writer, actor or director.

Visible Fictions also targets the younger audience (four to eight years) with The Song from the Sea, in which author Mike Kenny reveals magical undertones in the clamour of daily life.

The last two productions are part of the festival's social inclusion outreach programme, which takes theatre to 2,500 children in 25 Edinburgh and Lothian schools. Joining them will be Shona Reppe Puppets with Cinderella (for six-plus years). Ms Reppe began as a stage designer and then discovered her gift for animation. Forget any notions of puppet on a string; Ms Reppe's creations seem to live and breathe. "I make lots of small movements" is her modest explanation.

Many children will remember her adorable space-dog Red, in the Catherine Wheels play of the same name. "At the end, when the children came to say goodbye to the dog, they never looked at me. It was amazing," she says.

Red was a partnership with Jill Robertson, who co-directs Cinderella as well as directing and performing in Lifeboat, the story of a torpedoed Second World War liner carrying young evacuees to Canada; only 11 survived.

"I first heard the story three years ago," says Ms Robertson. "I've wanted to do it ever since. But how could I stage it? Two young girls, 19 hours on an upturned lifeboat!

"Wonderfully, they're both still alive, in their 70s. Nicola McCartney (the writer) and I went down to Cheltenham see one of them.

"It's a great drama, worth spending a year of my life on," she says.

The school performances are generally sold out already and audiences for the evening performances for families are up on last year. For those whom Imaginate calls delegates - children's theatre workers, arts education officers, theatre directors, buyers and promoters - festival packages will enable them to make connections, discuss children's theatre and see the best shows. Mr Reekie hopes their informal meetings will lead to more effective use of this powerful developmental resource.

For a programme, call 0131 225 8050, e-mail info@imaginate.org.ukwww.imaginate.org.ukFor tickets, pound;4 each, pound;20 for six, tel 0131 228 1404; www.traverse.co.uk

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