JOYCE MCMILLAN on IMAGINATE – CHILDREN’S INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 28.5.09
The Story Of A Family 4 stars ****
The Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy 4 stars ****
Thick Skinned Things 4 stars ****
Queen 3 stars ***
WHEN IS A CHILDREN’S SHOW not a children’s show? When the audience watching it turns sixteen, seems to be the working definition at Edinburgh’s brilliant Imaginate Festival, which celebrates in 20th birthday this year. There are certainly few other limits set to the theatrical work in the festival, which contains plenty of life and colour, but also – for older audiences – marches boldly into areas where children’s theatre once feared to go, from depression, madness and the loss of love, to the hidden strain of trying to maintain a perfect, peachy-sweet middle class family life.
In Compagnia Radisio of Italy’s Story Of A Family, for example, we meet a lovely family of three, a Mum, a Dad, and a little girl who sees herself as a future world-beating Olympic acrobat of the Olga Korbut kind. This family is absolutely perfect in every way; everything in their life goes as well as possible, all the time.
But gradually, over 50 minutes, through a torrentially inventive use of repetitive movement and non-speech sound, the company begin to suggest how the maintenance of this cloying, ultra-loving domestic image, and the happy routine that is part of it, is gradually driving all three of them mad with boredom and irritation. The Mum is a monster of competitive smugness and suppressed ambition, the Dad can get nasty when crossed, and the pressures on the adored only child are huge, as the parents increasingly live through her and her potential achievements. Yet there’s also genuine love there; and three brillliant performances from Consuelo Ghiretti, Beatrice Baruffini, and Davide Doro, in a memorably clever, theatrical and subtle exploration of the pressures on modern family life.
The Story Of A Family sets off on a short tour of Scotland next week; and so does Finegan Kruckemeyer’s Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy, a clever and wistful show from Imaginate newcomers Slingsby, of South Australia. Staged in a tented room at Dancebase, this show adopts a loosely Victorian, gypsy storyteller style, and makes engaging and sometimes brilliant use of film, shadow-play, miniature puppetry and – above all – of glowing projected images, to tell the tale of a boy made of cheese who is cast adrift in the universe when his cheesy little planet is fondued by a meteor, and of his long struggle to accept the loss of his parents. “Are you ready to be saddened? Are you ready to be dazzled?” lead actor Stephen Sheehan asks his audience of over-10’s; and although I could have done without some of the more look-at-me aspects of his deliberately self-conscious performance style, this show achieves both effects, with great charm and feeling.
For sheer unapologetic darkness, though, this year’s festival is unlikely to see anything bolder than Stella den Haag’s Thick Skinned Things, a 35-minute monologue for a deeply damaged, woman who feels that she’s a mole, so much does she want to burrow into the earth and disappear; but whose life is disrupted when she falls for a neighbour because of the compellingly graceful way in which he takes his rubbish out. It’s short, it’s dank, at times it’s quite annoying in its evocation of extreme introversion. But the way this powerful text (Hans van den Boom) and performance (an amazing Erna van den Berg) tugs at the heart-strings, and plays with archetypes of love and loss from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is astonishingly haunting; if you ever get the chance to see it – and avoid it, if you’re under 14 – then you may not exactly enjoy it, but you will never forget it.
By contrast with these shows, the Mary Queen of Scots play Queen, by Sgaramusch of Switzerland, seems like a fairly silly piece of fun. Set in a radio studio, where a couple of flaky actors are recording the action on reel-to-reel tape, Queen sends the story of Mary up rotten, without really explaining why. Particularly in its opening sequence, the text seems strongly influenced by Liz Lochhead’s version of the tale. But instead of challenging and expanding historical and cultural stereotypes, as Lochhead’s text does, it simply reinforces them. It entirely misses the religious dimension of the story; and its main satirical idea seems to be that all the men in Mary’s life suffered from the pox, and were useless to her. This is almost true, as far as it goes. But it seems like a thin reason for creating a play about Mary in Switzerland and bringing it all the way back to Scotland; and the radio-studio formula, with its jokes about silly sound-effects, represents a pretty obvious way of raising a few laughs.
As for Scottish-based children’s companies, all of whose current shows have already opened in Scotland, they have been making an increasingly impressive contribution to the Imaginate Festival in recent years. But it’s noticeable that this year, only Visible Fictions’ edgy version of Peter Pan – at the Royal Lyceum from today – even begins to approach the troubling territory explored by so much of the work from elsewhere. TAG’s beautiful, inventive Museum of Dreams is all miniaturist charm and romance; and Catherine Wheels’ deliberately retro version of E. Nesbit’s Book Of Beasts, while thoroughly enjoyable, wraps its story of political disaster and devastation in layers of nostalgic reassurance. There’s nothing much wrong with the work, in other words; but this year, unlike some of the international shows on view, it seems at some distance form the cutting edge of children’s theatre, and in need of the fresh inspiration a festival like Imaginate never fails to provide.
The Story Of A Family at the Lyceum Studio until Saturday, and then on tour to Easterhouse, Hawick, Dunfermline, Lerwick and Glasgow. The Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy at Dancebase until Sunday, and then on tour to Falkirk, Hamilton, Easterhouse, Glasgow and Lerwick. Thick Skinned Things, run completed. Queen, final performance at the Traverse Theatre today.
ENDS ENDS ENDS