Theatre reviews: Baba Yaga | Stick By Me | A Feast Of Bones | Mbuzeni | Expedition Peter Pan

NO NOISE, no pets, no dancing, no laughing, no singing, no parties, no Blu-Tack, no barbecues, no drawing-pins. If you've ever felt rebellious about living in a control-freak world '“ or particularly in a control-freak block of flats '“ then you'll empathise with our little heroine Vaselina, the receptionist who has to enforce all these regulations in Poultry Park Apartments, the setting for this brilliant new version of the alluring old Russian fairytale Baba Yaga, jointly created for this year's Edinburgh International Children's Festival by Scotland's Shona Reppe, and brilliant Australian children's theatre artists Christine Johnston and Rosemary Myers.
Shona Reppe as Vaselina and Christine Johnston as Baba shineShona Reppe as Vaselina and Christine Johnston as Baba shine
Shona Reppe as Vaselina and Christine Johnston as Baba shine

Baba Yaga, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh *****

Stick By Me, North Edinburgh Arts ****

A Feast of Bones, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Mbuzeni, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Expedition Peter Pan, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh *****

The rest of the residents – brilliantly conjured up in some astonishingly fine and witty video projections – are in a permanent rage about the apparently evil Baba, a majestic lady with a shopping basket for a hat who lives in a kind of indoor jungle in one of the upper apartments, and constantly breaks the rules.

With Reppe and Johnston in stunning form as Vaselina and Baba, though, it soon becomes apparent that this is no simple tale of a good young girl and a wicked witch, but a much more complex and visually thrilling parable about how an encounter with an older woman who is a rule-breaker – and who may even want to eat you for dinner – can be a vital part of a young girl’s development.

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Along with Eddie And The Slumber Sisters – co-produced by Catherine Wheels and the National Theatre of Scotland – the other Scottish-made production in this year’s festival is Andy Manley’s latest work Stick By Me, for children aged three to six.

Like his beautiful 2017 festival success Night Light, Stick By Me explores the world of a very young child, this time using a minimal set, and the simplest of physical comedy, to imagine a child testing the boundaries of his world, accompanied by a series of friendly lollipop sticks who become his pals. Only a pair of unseen parental voices interrupt his play, usually to say “no”, sometimes to encourage; in a show that speaks directly to the experience of pre-school children, and makes its point, with the simplest of means.

The point of EICF is to put Scottish-made work on stage alongside a powerful and inspiring programme of 
international work, and this year there have been some richly memorable visits, from companies from nine countries.

Theatre Lovett of Ireland’s A Feast Of Bones, aimed at older children and adults, is a tremendously chic, 
stylish and beautiful re-telling of the story of Henny Penny, set in a strange, topsy-turvy Paris restaurant at the end of the First World War, with themes of violence, morality and the right to kill emerging through some superb rough-edged music, as well as two fine central performances from 
Louis Lovett as “Mr Renard”, and Muireann Ahern as the red-haired waitress.

Mbuzeni, from Koleka Putuma of South Africa, offers the unsettling and unforgettable story of four orphan girls who live near the cemetery in the village of strangers where life has brought them, and who represent generations of children of violence in their macabre yet playful obsession with death – the deaths of their parents, and death among themselves, to which they respond with a sudden maturity, and a great swell of song, that breaks the heart.

And Het Laagland of the Netherlands’ Expedition Peter Pan – which, like Baba Yaga, continues at the Traverse until Sunday – is one of the finest pieces of theatre I’ve seen for children aged between seven and and early teens, a brilliant fantasy in which five uptight, businesslike grown-ups in grey suits suddenly find themselves dumped into some cosmic children’s playroom. Over a brilliant 65 minutes, we watch them gradually, gloriously succumb to the magnificent temptations of play, and to the need to keep giving our inner child some space to express himself, or herself.

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To say that the kids in the audience love this is a huge understatement; they almost rush the stage in their enthusiasm to defend the world of childhood, and to persuade today’s stressed-out adults to loosen up a bit.

Like all great theatre, it’s a perfect blend of politics and play; and it’s driven by a terrific playlist of mind-blowing pop, as well as five superb performances from a company who seem to know in their bones that children’s theatre is not just about theatre for children, but about theatre made for, and by, the child in all of us.

The Edinburgh International Children’s Festival continues until 3 June

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