Various venues, Edinburgh
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The Bank of Scotland Imaginate Festival, which showcases theatre for children and young people from around the world, is a brilliantly curated gem of the Scottish theatre scene. I never cease to be impressed by the quality and diversity of the work which the festival’s director, Tony Reekie, manages to bring to Edinburgh year after year.
Dutch children’s theatre enjoys a deservedly strong reputation, and it has long had an important place in Reekie’s programming. The Brothers Grimm’s famous tale of Rumpelstiltskin, as told by Stella Den Haag, is a good example as to why.
Aimed at children aged eight and over, the show (which was presented at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh) is performed in everyday clothes; except that the malevolent dwarf of the title (played quite brilliantly by Titus Boonstra) is rendered strange by a corset around his waist and elevated heels on his shoes. The contrast between normality (the miller’s daughter, Esmiralda, who enchants the young men of the town with her cello playing) and the otherworldly (Rumpelstiltskin, his voice made sinister by electronic distortion) is achieved by the most simple and intelligent of theatrical devices.
Told by means of performed narration and lovely live music (including Mozart and Saint–Saëns), this version of the story is, at base, about the passage of Esmiralda (performed with infectious empathy by Rosa Mee) from childhood into womanhood. The victim of her father’s snobbery and paternalism (he boasts of his daughter’s supposed capacity to spin straw into gold in an attempt to impress the Prince), she is assailed by one over-confident, greedy man (the Prince, who, humorously, wears a vest with the word “anti-flirt” picked out in diamante) and another morally degenerate one (the eponymous dwarf). In coming through the ordeal, Esmiralda seems to achieve the knowledge and self-confidence she requires to become a woman; indeed, the show’s neatly observed and subtle references to nascent sexuality enhance this sense of her growing up through resistance to malevolent male attention.
The play bristles with clever innovations, from the dwarf putting nonsense phrases into the Prince’s mouth (to the delight of the young audience) to Rumpelstiltskin being punished by being frozen forever in the shape of a garden gnome. Not for the first time with Dutch children’s theatre, one is impressed by the work’s thoughtfulness, skill and imaginative freedom.
There’s another kind of freedom entirely in Traverse, a delightful work of comic dance theatre, staged, appropriately enough, at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre by French group Compagnie Arcosm. Created for children aged seven and upwards, the show – in which a lonely young man in an unprepossessing flat allows his monotonous routine to be broken by dreams of romance and excitement – is like watching the great London-based company DV8 Physical Theatre making work for kids.
The piece shifts between seeming naturalism (such as the young man receiving a visit from his female neighbour) and the complete destabilising of the scene (the walls of the flat shake and, then, seem to melt away). Technically, this is achieved almost flawlessly; the visibility of a performer behind a supposedly independently moving sliding door was a disappointing flaw.
However, with its live xylophone playing, its percussion of human bodies on household objects, and its lovely movement (not least in a gorgeously danced solo by Anne-Cécile Chane-Tune), Traverse is a wonderfully funny and emotive piece of dance theatre.
There was more dance theatre over at North Edinburgh Arts Centre, where Sally Chance Dance of Australia were offering This (Baby) Life for tots as young as four months. A beautifully pitched show, it creates a gorgeously benign environment of movement, simple vocals, fine live music (much of it played on superb, Australian-made steel drums) and carefully considered props.
As they play their music – ranging from the nursery song Row, Row, Row Your Boat to tunes which owe a discernible debt to Indian ragas – the company interact with the young children by copying their sounds and movements. I was impressed to watch a very little boy quickly realise how this game worked and begin leading the performer’s actions, whether by pulling his earlobe or falling on his side and looking back at the performer. The show is full of such moments, making this deceptively simple (by which I mean thoughtfully constructed) piece as pleasurable for the attendant adults as it is for the little ones themselves.
Cloud Man, by Ailie Cohen Puppet Maker, (which played at Edinburgh’s Church Hill Theatre Studio) was one of no fewer than five Scottish shows in this year’s programme. Made for children aged four to seven, it follows cloud-obsessed young woman Cloudia (dreadful pun intended) as she searches for the titular denizen of the skies.
This solo show, written with assiduous simplicity by Ailie Cohen and Lewis Hetherington, is performed, in turns, by Cohen and Jen Edgar. One can only hope that Cohen is more comfortable in the role than Edgar, who lacks both the charisma and the confidence to either carry or interact with a young audience.
Cohen’s set and puppets (not least the little Cloud Man himself) are absolutely charming. However, a long, speechless scene, in which Cloudia undertakes a forensic search of a cloud, is notably ineffective. That said, so weak is Edgar’s performance, that it is difficult to tell where her shortcomings end and the show’s own failures begin.
Some work from the Imaginate Festival will be touring Scotland as part of the London 2012 Festival. For further information visit: www.imaginate.org.uk
A slightly abridged version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Herald on May 13, 2012
© Mark Brown