A Feast for the Senses
From toddlers to teenagers, the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival offers a world class programme of theatre and dance, finds Mark Brown
To attend the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival is not only to join audiences of youngsters from throughout Edinburgh and beyond, it is also to take one’s place alongside international delegates (children’s performing arts creators and producers) from around the world.
There’s a good reason why the Festival attracts such global interest. It is not only the largest festival of its kind in the UK, it is also, to my mind, the highest quality, most carefully curated performing arts showcase in Scotland.
This year’s Festival (which ends today) has boasted work for all age groups (from babies and toddlers to teenagers), from countries as diverse as Germany, New Zealand and South Africa. Festival director Noel Jordan can be proud of a world class programme which has impressed immensely, both in its imaginative scope and its splendid production values.
A very definite case in point is A Feast Of Bones by Irish company Theatre Lovett. Designed for kids aged nine to 15, the piece is a beautifully radical reworking of the fable of Henny Penny, the paranoiac chicken who inadvertently led her friends to destruction at the jaws of Foxy Loxy.
This might sound a little basic for its target audience, but consider that writer Frances Kay and director Muireann Ahern have relocated the tale to a French restaurant in Dublin named Le Monde Bouleverse (The World Turned Upside-down). Consider, too, that we find ourselves in 1918, in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.
The restaurant is, as its name suggests, a decidedly odd one. The eatery boasts a knife-sharp waitress (Lisa Lambe), a pair of French musicians who are refugees from the War (composer Nico Brown and Martin Brunsden) and a single customer (an energetically eccentric, somewhat foxy gastronome by the name of Rennard).
The restaurant’s menu seems to have been inspired by the story of Henny Penny. However, at Le Monde Bouleverse, we are dealing, not with paranoia, but with a world in which the sky did fall in for four terrible years.
Superbly inventive though the storytelling is, it is the exquisite theatricality of the show that makes it a genuinely great piece of live drama. Every aspect of the work, from the clever stage and lighting design to the memorably marvellous music, is gorgeously stylish.
Smartly acted throughout, the show’s piece de resistance is the playing of Rennard by Louis Lovett. A cleverly complex character, Lovett’s Rennard is a likeable, if egotistical, clown. Snobbish, self-important and less educated than he supposes, he has, despite his apparent cheerfulness, a dark war story of his own.
Lambe gives a perfectly pitched performance as the waitress, simultaneously engaging, mysterious and just a little sinister. As she turns the tables, she also turns the famous fable into a moving tale of revenge and redemption.
Theatre Lovett describes itself, not as a children’s theatre company, but as a creator of “works for all”. A Feast Of Bones bears brilliant testimony to its skill in making cross-generational theatre.
A very different highlight of the Festival was Stick By Me, a work for three to six-year-olds by Scotland’s own Andy Manley and Red Bridge Arts. Performed by the always brilliant Manley, the piece is the deliciously off-centre story of the friendship between a man and a small stick (which looks suspiciously like a coffee stirrer).
Think Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape meets One Man And His Dog, but with a wee stick standing in for the dog, and you’re (possibly) getting somewhere close to the concept of this delightful little piece. Sitting behind a Victorian-style school desk, Manley’s lone character is confined by reproving voices from leaving the square space in which he lives.
Only through the playful imagination, and with the help of his wee wooden friend and some adhesive tape (of which, luckily enough, there is an abundance), can Manley finally escape a decidedly sticky situation. It’s bonkers, of course, but delightfully funny and utterly charming.
There’s charm, too, in Toddler Room, a beautifully gentle, enchantingly designed dance piece for babies and toddlers by Dybwikdans of Norway. The show is presented in a lovely, little white pod in which dancer Marie Ronold Mathisen interacts wordlessly with her very young audience using nicely choreographed movement, big red balloons and a large, but appealingly benign, bird puppet.
I was intrigued to see Mbuzeni, a play for kids aged 12 and over by the South African company Koleka Putuma. The piece tells the story of four homeless orphan girls who are separated from the nearby community, not only by their marginal status, but also by their fixation with playing burial games in the town cemetery.
This is a traditional society, and the girls’ seeming disregard for the rituals of death sets them further apart. The story, which deals with death boldly and is unafraid of a sad ending, is a powerful one.
The singing and dancing are engaging, as is the combination of the Xhosa language with English. However, the piece relies too heavily on the easy humour of adult actors playing child characters.
As the Festival goes into its final day, I can recommend the outstandingly brilliant Baba Yaga (for children aged 7-12) and Ogo, a delightful puppet play for kids aged two-and-a-half to six, which I was fortunate to catch in Quebec last summer.
Details of the programme for the final day of the Festival can be found at: imaginate.org.uk
This reviews feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 3, 2018
© Mark Brown