Theatre review: Edinburgh International Children's Festival

There's the joy of babyhood and early childhood; pure discovery and pleasure. Then there's the pain of growing a little older, and having to deal with an uneasy transition into teenage years, or even the real threats of violence and bullying. There's also the growing awareness of living in a world that doesn't seem too good at dealing with the biggest problems it faces; and all these aspects of childhood are brilliantly reflected in this year's Edinburgh International Children's Festival, taking place in venues all over the city this week.
MamaBabaMe is a dance-based show for toddlers who get to play with the performers and musical instrumentsMamaBabaMe is a dance-based show for toddlers who get to play with the performers and musical instruments
MamaBabaMe is a dance-based show for toddlers who get to play with the performers and musical instruments

Various venues, Edinburgh

It’s perhaps in its encounter with the tougher aspects of growing up that this Festival reaches its highest intensity; not least in the Folketeatret of Denmark’s solo monologue Evil (JJJJ), performed to packed audiences at the Lyra Theatre in Craigmillar by Claes Bang, star of the film which this week won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Festival. One of two shows selected for EICF by a panel of Edinburgh schoolchildren, Evil is based on an autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou, and explores a young boy’s relationship with violence, as he survives a childhood of savage beatings by his father, and finds himself sent away to a school where the culture of violence is even worse. Fascinating, unflinching, and morally subtle, this is a breathtaking solo performance, presented on a bare stage to young teenage audiences who are completely absorbed in it.

Het Filiaal of the Netherlands’ Falling Dreams (JJJJ) is also a world-class piece of theatre for audiences aged around 10-15, in which a company of four, plus three operators and technicians, create live on stage the story, shown on a big screen, of a 12-year-old girl who is just getting on with her routine life when she suddenly falls, Alice-like, down a hole into a series of different worlds. We’re never sure if her story is just a dream or something more like a slide into a parallel universe; but with Karin Jessica Jansen delivering a wonderful, heartbreaking central performance as the girl, we certainly know that she has been through an important rite of passage – and that by the end, she isn’t just her parents’ little girl any more.

Night Light is a gentle, enchanting journey for three to six year oldsNight Light is a gentle, enchanting journey for three to six year olds
Night Light is a gentle, enchanting journey for three to six year olds
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The two new Scottish shows in this year’s Festival, by contrast, are strongly focused on the early years of childhood, with Andy Manley’s Night Light at the Roxy (JJJJ) offering a beautiful 45-minute immersive experience set in the room occupied by a man whose job it is to look after what happens at night. Co-produced with Teater Refleksion of Denmark, the show creates a kind of magic town out of the little tables, cabinets and chests of drawers in the room; and the light and sound by Daniel Padden and Anders Kjerns combine perfectly to create a gentle, enchanted journey for children aged three to six that holds them absolutely enthralled, as well as taking them back to a time when household things were not ten a penny, but crafted objects full of their own magic, and their own stories.

Starcatchers’ MamaBabaMe (JJJ), co-created with Curious Seed, is likewise aimed at tiny children, aged between 18 months to three. The show is a dance-based piece in which the two main performers alternate the roles of baby and mother; and although sometimes their sheer mutual absorption seems to leave the tiny audience feeling slightly abandoned, the chance to climb into the circle at the end, and play with the the performers and their musical instruments, produces some lovely moments of discovery.

And then there are the shows that turn our attention, unavoidably to the wider world into which our children are growing up. Brilliantly performed in Edinburgh by Scottish actor Rosalind Sydney, the Terrapin Puppet Theatre of Australia’s You And Me And The Space Between (JJJJ) is a monologue with beautiful drawn imagery projected on a screen, about a little girl whose blissful island home begins to sink into the sea, and who plays a key role in finding a solution, as the islanders encounter the rest of the world, for the first time.

And finally, there is Bounce (JJJJ), a magnificent piece of choreography from the French company Arcosm in which a group of four performers find themselves sharing the stage with a huge wooden block which, at first, they try to ignore. The quality of dance and musical performance is frankly breathtaking, the metaphor of denial about the biggest facts that face us is unmissable; and once again, theatre confronts our most intractable problems with joy, beauty, and a huge creativity that gives us strength, and even a little hope.


EICF continues at venues across Edinburgh until 4 June