Fringe children's show reviews: Granny Smith | Garden of Delight | You Choose! | Is This a Dagger?

This year’s Fringe may be smaller than usual, but there’s still plenty on offer for young audiences, writes Joyce McMillan

Garden of Delight PIC: Robert Cassidy

Granny Smith, Institut Francais d’Ecosse, Edinburgh ***

Garden of Delight, Duddingston Kirk Manse Gardens ****

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You Choose!, Assembly George Square Gardens ****

Is This a Dagger?, Scottish Storytelling Centre *****

The Scottish school holidays are over now; but so far, the slimmed-down 2021 Fringe has been an excellent one for young audiences, with venues less crowded, and a fine range of new and established shows on offer. New to the Fringe and to Scotland, for example, is the French Institute’s Granny Smith, a completely charming English lesson for French speakers – or French lesson for English speakers – disguised as a tale about a day in the life of slightly dotty Granny Smith, an English woman long resident in France who now has a tendency to forget her English at crucial moments.

Created and performed by Tracey Boot of Theatre Transformations, a Scottish-born writer, producer and mask-maker who – like her character – now lives in France, Granny Smith is slightly short on narrative for an hour-long show, and leaves some of its strands completely unresolved. Where it scores highly, though, is in some superb audience participation – a brilliant little lad called Boris did us all proud at the performance I saw, as did the two older children recruited to help Granny bake a pear crumble – and in the unforgettable figure of Granny Smith herself, delightfully vague and colourful in a beautifully-made half mask, and a dress dotted with huge red flowers. At the end, there’s a chance for the audience to see, and ask questions about, some of the new masks Tracey Boot has been making during lockdown; and with well over half the audience eager to stay and chat, it was clear that Granny had not only won a few hearts, but also some possible young converts to the ancient art of mask-making, which Boot practices with such love and care.

This summer of all summers, though, there’s nothing like an outdoor show in a beautiful setting to lift the heart and restore the soul; and Theatre Alba’s Garden Of Delight, playing in the lovely Duddingston Kirk Manse Gardens, is a children’s show that might have been made for the occasion. Written in a strong and lucid traditional Scots by actor and director Clunie Mackenzie – and produced partly in memory of Theatre Alba’s much-loved artistic director, Charlie Nowosielski, who died last year – The Garden Of Delight was first seen at Duddingston in 2018, and features a merry jester, Tumshie, who, with a strum on his guitar and a cheerful song, leads us all through a magic gate into Dr Neil’s Garden by the loch; or rather, into the magical land of Alba, where the waters of the loch sparkle through the trees, and the rowan trees are full of berries. We’ve been warned that there’s trouble afoot; and we’ve no sooner met the garden’s resident fairy, Heather Belle, than a friendly tree turns up, to tell the story of how all the garden’s trees and plants are under threat from the evil Boggarts – one of whom immediately pops out from behind a bush to roar his worst about death and pollution.

The mood is never downbeat, though, as we set off through garden to meet the lovely Lady In Green and many other characters, all of whom will help us to keep our five senses about us, and defeat the Boggarts. The five-strong cast, led by Robert Williamson as the jester, deliver the story with good-humoured flair and passion; and by the time we set off through the garden on our mission, the children in the audience are already gambolling along right behind Tumshie on his quest, joining with gusto in his daft wee songs (by Theatre Alba veteran John Sampson), and looking as if they’ve been recruited by a latter-day Pied Piper – although one whose intentions, happily, are entirely benign.

There’s also plenty of green space at Assembly in George Square Gardens; but it’s inside the Palais de Variete spiegeltent that Nonsense Room Productions of Scotland (the company behind favourites like Hairy Maclary and Shark In The Park) are reviving their hit show You Choose!, based on the book by Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt. You Choose! is a supremely interactive piece of theatre, in which the children in their audience – and sometimes their adults, too – get to make choices about which characters we see and which stories we tell.

In the course of a brisk and fun-packed hour, performers Paul Besson and Carrie Mancini use every old pantomime trick in the book to draw the audience into the action, as we get to choose hats and costumes, jobs and destinations, and even a name for the show’s elusive orange cat; and if the storytelling leaves a few loose ends, the show offers so much sheer enjoyment that it hardly seems to matter.

As for Andy Cannon’s Is This A Dagger?, playing at the Scottish Storytelling Centre – well, this is a truly world-class piece of Scottish storytelling, already seen over the years in venues from New York to Galway, and looking as brilliant as ever in this one-hour Fringe version. It’s a show that offers both a superbly inventive retelling of the story of Macbeth, and a powerful sense of the context of this version of Scottish history, all in one superb package. And there’s also as much audience participation as such a dramatic tale can bear; as the audience gets not only to play the witches, but also to take direction from the mighty Mr Cannon on how play them better and more spookily, with every stir of the cauldron.

Granny Smith runs until 30 August; Garden of Delight and Is This A Dagger? until 29 August; You Choose! until 22 August, www.edfringe.com

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