Theatre reviews: Birdboy | Little Murmur | The Hope River Girls | Hermit

The programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Children’s Festival boasts strong writing, magnificent dance sequences and spectacular visual effects, writes Joyce McMillan

Birdboy PIC: Luca Truffarelli
Birdboy PIC: Luca Truffarelli

Little Murmur, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh ****

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The Hope River Girls, The Studio, Edinburgh ****

Hermit, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh ****

It’s been a thrilling week at the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival for those who are interested in the power of dance and movement in children’s theatre, and in combining movement with spectacular visual effects; not least in two powerful and ground-breaking solo shows, from Dublin and Leicester, both of which also explore the powerful post-lockdown themes of loneliness, isolation and self-reflection.

Birdboy, by the Irish company United Fall, is a breathtakingly vivid 40 minute piece about a boy who seems to have fled from his suburban life, to live in a beaten-up old car in the woods. The car sits centre-stage, in Emma Martin’s stunningly designed and choreographed show; and to say that it seems to have a life of its own is an understatement. It shrieks and flashes, plays an astonishing mix-tape of rock and pop tunes, and from time to time spews forth little ghostly white figures like helium-filled plastic carrier bags trailing ribbons of silk, which then hang around like friendly aliens, witnessing the astonishing agony and ecstasy of the central character, brilliantly played and danced by Kevin Coquelard.

Aakash Odedra and Lewis Major’s co-choeographed solo piece Little Murmur is designed to reflect more specifically on the experience of dyslexia, and on Odedra’s own struggle with the condition. Performed in Edinburgh by Subhash Viman Gorania, Little Murmur features tentative spoken-word elements that perhaps sit a little awkwardly beside the sheer authority and brilliance of the show’s movement and dance, and the superb animated sequences which accompany it. In his battle with the avalanches of paper that plague modern life, though, the character on stage seems to strike a profound chord with his young seven to 14 year-old audience; as he struggles to the point of breakdown against a world that communicates obsessively through the written word, while he finds his truest means of self-expression in supremely eloquent movement.

There’s more clarity about the relationship between spoken word and movement in young Scottish company Groupwork’s The Hope River Girls, a new version of its 2019 Scotsman Fringe First-winning show The Afflicted, designed for audiences aged ten to 15. Here, the story of a group of teenage girls in Hope River, New York State, who – a decade ago – suddenly began to twitch, moan, and show signs of severe neurological disturbance, is clearly told through Lewis Den Hertog’s superb video work, and by the cast themselves, in stylish spoken word sequences. Then the emotions and imagery unleashed are explored in ever more intense and magnificent sequences of dance, backed by animated film, which together invoke all the still-present pressures in the history of the town – from 1930s depression to 17th century witchcraft trials – that might have contributed to the strange Hope River incident; without having to utter another word.

And finally, for a near-perfect combination of movement and human voice in children’s theatre, there’s no need to look any further than Simone De Jong of the Netherlands’ exquisitely funny show Hermit, for children aged two to six. On stage, there’s a box that turns out to be someone’s home; but in true lockdown style, the person who lives there has become a hermit, not at all happy to hear his doorbell ring. Around that simple idea, De Jong and performer Toon Kuijpers build a gorgeous 40 minute show that fully involves the children in the audience in a vital, laughter-filled interaction with the hermit on stage; in a performance that fully captures the joy of this year’s Children’s Festival, and the sheer quality of the live work it features, after two long years of lockdown.

Birdboy is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 14 May; Little Murmur is at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, until 15 May; The Hope River Girls and Hermit, runs completed, https://www.imaginate.org.uk/festival/.