CINDERELLA ***** SCOTTISH STORYTELLING CENTRE, EDINBURGH RAWUMS (:) **** NORTH EDINBURGH ARTS CENTRE, EDINBURGH CHIT-CHAT *** TRAVERSE, EDINBURGH ONE THOUSAND PAPER CRANES **** CHURCH HILL THEATRE STUDIO, EDINBURGH MARTHA *** BRUNTON THEATRE, MUSSELBURGH
IT'S SCARCELY 10:30am on a Monday morning and already I'm being subjected to a barrage of sex and violence. It can mean only one thing: The Bank of Scotland Imaginate children's theatre festival is back and, as ever, treating young audiences with the same respect their parents take for granted. Festival director Tony Reekie tells me that he hasn't got the bottle to programme the fantastic Dutch show he saw that featured the suicide of a tomato but, in among the daftness and the fun of this year's line-up, he is providing plenty of themes that even grown-ups would find chewy.
The sex and violence comes courtesy of Shona Reppe, the radiant Scottish puppeteer whose one-woman Cinderella has been dazzling the world since 2002. That I've missed it all these years is inexcusable and I strongly recommend you catch up with it too. It's the only way you'll appreciate how raunchy she can make two hands appear as she kits them out in red and orange gloves – with a cheeky feather edging – to become the not-so-ugly Ugly Sisters. In a kind of reverse striptease, Reppe uses the most precise movement and the sparest amount of language to give life to these hilariously vulgar creatures.
What a contrast to poor Cinderella herself, an all-but-colourless puppet made out of raggedy cloth, whose tireless domestic drudgery is minutely inspected by her cruel stepsisters. When I say "cruel", I mean they're the kind who will dunk her head in a pail of water, dangle her upside down from a height and threaten to throw her in the fire. This show is for the over-fives, but I've never seen the heroine treated so mercilessly.
It's rare, too, to see a Cinderella told with such visual flair and deadpan wit. We see nothing of the pumpkin and little of the renamed Prince Alvin, but the black-light dance at the ball is charming and dream-like and Reppe's own transformation into the good fairy, with flickering feather duster standing in for wings, is a delight. The children are captivated by such a fresh retelling of a familiar tale; the adults no less so, plus they get the added bonus of appreciating Reppe's incidental gags, such as her description of the glass slippers: "How beautiful yet impractical."
After assault and battery for primary school children, we come to Newtonian physics for two-year-olds. In Rawums (:), German double-act Florschtz & Dhnert focus on an audience that has not long got to grips with gravity. They know hats are supposed to stay on heads, that birds can fly even though eggs cannot and that houses are resolutely earthbound. When Melanie Florschtz and Michael Dhnert put these assumptions to the test, however, they upturn the laws of nature to hilarious and beguiling effect.
We have a good laugh when Florschtz's hat keeps floating upwards and when Dhnert can't figure out why a feather takes longer to hit the ground than a heavy bag. But things take on a magical dimension when the balloons come out and, with small pegs for ballast, they give floating, dancing, drifting life to the paper man, woman, bird and house they support. The young audience claps repeatedly, as if applauding the wonder of gravity itself.
Like much of the best children's theatre – and, indeed, much of the best adult theatre – Rawums (:) is built on a simple idea. The same is true of Chit-chat, a piece of choreography by the French company Cie tantdonn that is all about anatomy. At the back of a dark stage a wide letterbox of light appears and in it, two sets of feet. To a bossa nova soundtrack, the bodiless limbs perform a funny tango, complete with optical illusions and sight gags. The focus switches to the upper-body before the dancers break out onto the whole stage for a teasing routine of acceptance and rejection.
For as long as it's all about feet, necks and shoulders, Chit-chat has a clear sense of purpose. A fluttering sequence set to a score of real birdsong works particularly well. But after the striking opening scenes, the show grows less coherent and meanders to an indifferent conclusion.
Waiting for the audience to arrive for One Thousand Paper Cranes, actors Julia Innocenti and Rosalind Sydney keep up an inspired improvised routine about sports training, Innocenti performing gruelling laps of the studio theatre while Sydney holds the stopwatch. The air of joviality is as infectious as it is misleading. Despite the knockabout fun, this superb production by Scotland's Lu Kemp and Abigail Docherty turns out to be about a ten-year-old with a terminal illness.
Effectively telling the same story as Catherine Wheels' Pobby and Dingan, one of the nominees in the shortlists for the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland announced today, One Thousand Paper Cranes is a deeply moving consideration of how to deal with childhood death. Innocenti plays a Japanese girl whose athleticism proves no match for Hiroshima's nuclear fallout. There is no avoiding her fate, but the play shows how her friend can start to come to terms with her loss by understanding the value of love and creativity in the form of a theatre that explodes to life with the paper cranes of the title.
I found it very touching and the audience was transfixed, although I'm not sure children are as bothered by death as adults. Faced by a very sickly goose in Catherine Wheels' Martha, for example, one child shouts out, "He's dead," but sounds only vaguely disappointed rather than traumatised.
In comparison to this week's weighty themes, Martha's moral about the value of friendship doesn't seem so urgent – and Gill Robertson is too generous an actor to make an entirely convincing curmudgeon – but there's no denying the entertainment value in this much-loved show about a truce between a recluse and a loose goose.
&149 Cinderella runs until 16 May; Rawums (:) tours Scotland until 19 May; Chit-Chat, run ended; One Thousand Paper Cranes runs until 16 May; Martha transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh, until 16 May. For full listings for the Imaginate festival, tel: 0131-228 1404; www.imaginate.org.uk
• Joyce McMillan is away