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Witches cast spell on new audiences

Licketyspit, a new children's theatre company for three- to seven-year-olds, is on its first tour, though audiences have been welcoming it like an old friend. And so they should, because they remember the company's repertoire from its first appearance under the somewhat forbidding name of the Wee Stories Early Years Project.

In three years (2001-03), Virginia Radcliffe and her team made such an impact with their originality and professionalism that they outgrew their parent company, Wee Stories Theatre for Children, and this year attracted a pound;46,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council to go solo.

As a result, Wee Witches is back on the road, Quangle Wangle will follow and a new production is in preparation for next year.

"Some children's theatre people are embarrassed at repeating themselves but I've no hesitation in bringing back shows I've done before," says writer and director Ms Radcliffe. "It's never exactly the same show, and Wee Witches has had a radical reworking.

"And the audiences come fresh. One of the lovely things about children is that they are a renewable resource."

The response to the Wee Witches tour, which started a month ago, has astonished her. "We are being booked out everywhere. We sold out at the Citizens in Glasgow and the Byre in St Andrews, where they wanted us to do a second performance but our schedule was full. The MacRobert in Stirling had to move us out of the children's theatre into the Big House.

"What has thrilled me most is the response in special schools, where the interaction has been almost the same as in the primary schools we've toured in Glasgow and North Ayrshire."

During the show, the children throw gifts - chocolate, magic dust, a friend - into the Wonder Egg the witch carries as readily as they will catch the soup bowls and spoons, and then the soup, that the witch flings from her cauldron. They shout out to stop her tasting the stew of frogs, hairy spiders and worms, and all this without even careful miming to prompt.

It is all a measure of how well Licketyspit achieves its promise to make child-centred theatre, of how the creators work with the imaginative understanding of children and how sympathetically they engage their interest and attention. The perceived wisdom used to be that 20 minutes was a child's attention span: Wee Witches holds the pre-school child for almost an hour with its parade of sad and merry witches, catchy songs, lively dance and, more precariously, its plain narrative.

With a vivacity of performance that matches the inventiveness and wit of the storytelling, and a hint of a moral, Ms Radcliffe and her fellow performer, Vivien Graham, skip through their characters and quick costume changes.

Which brings us to co-founder of Licketyspit and costume and set designer Catherine Lindow. Wee Witches is a hats show, pointed, mostly black, but also a floppy pink one for the Laughter Witch which every red-blooded child in the audience hankers after.

Brian Hayward Wee Witches is touring until May 25. Licketyspit, tel 0131 556 6637

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