Theatre review: Imaginate, various venues, Edinburgh

Colour and dreams dominate theatre festival for children, writes Joyce McMillan
Sprog Rock legs children live their pop star dreams. Picture: Sean YoungSprog Rock legs children live their pop star dreams. Picture: Sean Young
Sprog Rock legs children live their pop star dreams. Picture: Sean Young

AT OUT of the Blue on Edinburgh’s Dalmeny Street, there’s something gorgeous, restless and a little unsettling going on, perfectly angled to the dreams and wishes of older primary school children. Ushered along by a lively, slightly eccentric-looking cast of six from the legendary Kopergietery children’s company of Belgium, we find ourselves asked to fill in a yellow form about our dearest hopes and dreams; then we’re presented with a small plastic duck, told to whisper our favourite dream in its ear, and invited to set the duck afloat in a Perspex tube full of running water that leads round into the auditorium, where the cast become a travelling theatre group in a battered Bedford van, fishing ducks out of the stream, and telling us crazy stories – using puppetry, plaintive songs, piles of cardboard boxes and a bit of gentle audience participation – about the dream embodied in that duck.

This is Broken Dreams (****); and although we consider the dreams of three or four audience members –a boy who wants to fly, a girl who wants to be Beyonce – it’s the girl who is waiting for her first kiss who sets the show alight, as the story is overtaken by the real-life crisis between lone girl performerAnna and her closest colleague, who is in love with her. As the story unfolds, it perhaps falls to make a final link back to the children in the room; but it’s a tale full of colour and eccentricity and imperfect humanity, speaking directly to that strange moment of transition between childhood, when everything seems possible, and the teen years, when we begin to learn about heartbreak.

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For if there’s one thing that’s striking about this year’s sun-blessed international festival of children’s theatre, it’s how clearly it articulates the huge series of shifts in what children need from theatre, as they move from babyhood to teens. My Imaginate week began at last weekend’s Family Fringe of Scottish-made shows in the National Museum of Scotland, with Catherine Wheels’s joyful revival for 4-8 year-olds of The Story Of The Little Gentleman (****), a simple tale about the search for friendship; and then drifted upstairs into a blissful half-hour in the Blue Block Studio (****), created by Starcatchers, which offers a gorgeous experience of sound, shapes, colour and light to tiny babies and toddlers.

Then on Monday evening at the Traverse there was the sheer thrill of Arcaladanza of Spain’s wonderful Miro-inspired dance show Constellations (****), an explosion of coloured lines, threads, shapes and blobs designed to thrill 5-11 year-olds with the potential of the human body, dancing through that joyful primary-coloured palette of red, yellow, blue, green, and black. On Tuesday, I saw the whole world of modern dance challenged and debated in the fascinating The Jury (****), staged at North Edinburgh Arts by Hege Haagenrud of Norway. Here, a filmed group of children aged between two and ten first put a stop to the rather pompous live modern dance performance that has just begun, and then debate what they would really likely to see, while the two dancers do their best to oblige.

A couple of shows seemed a little less successful; Helios Theatre of Germany’s Traces (***), for nursery-aged children, made heavy weather of exploring all the marks we can make on the world, whether in drawings on the wall, images on a camera lens, or footsteps in sand; and Cre8ion of Australia’s Fluff (***), about a trio in black-and-white gingham who travel the world finding lost toys, was a fabulous-looking show and concept but seemed more uncertain, and sometimes awkward, in the detail of a slightly heavy-footed performance.

If you want a glorious weekend of thoughtful fun in Edinburgh, though, then there’s no better way to spend it than revelling in the range and creativity of what is now one of the world’s premiere children’s theatre festivals. With this week’s announcement of a new initiative by Imaginate and the National Theatre of Scotland to ensure that every child in Scotland has the chance to see some world-class theatre at school, every year, it’s worth checking out the sheer thrill that’s in store for them, in a festival full of brilliant colour, and of dreams that sometimes come true.

• Imaginate 2016 continues until tomorrow, at venues across Edinburgh