Theatre preview: Catherine Wheels prepare to launch new show after escaping funding cut

Publicity image for Eddie and the Slumber Sisters, opeining at the Corn Exchange, Haddington, on 2 May and on tour until 3 June
Publicity image for Eddie and the Slumber Sisters, opeining at the Corn Exchange, Haddington, on 2 May and on tour until 3 June
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Despite the best efforts of the Scottish Parliament’s culture committee, we can only guess what Creative Scotland was thinking when it decided to stop funding Catherine Wheels earlier this year. We can be thankful (although no less puzzled) that a fortnight later the funding body reversed its decision and reinstated the theatre company’s three-year £641,250 package.

The initial decision was hard to fathom for many reasons, not least because Catherine Wheels is one of Scotland’s best theatre companies, celebrated internationally for shows such as the sublime White and, in the last year alone, staging 11 productions. Even Creative Scotland’s own advisors had recommended a nine per cent funding increase. The funder’s last-minute suggestion that Catherine Wheels could turn instead to a yet-to-be-established touring fund seemed to betray an ignorance of how a full-time company functions.

This was all damaging enough, but the controversy raised a deeper question. At the same time as axing Catherine Wheels, Creative Scotland also withdrew funds to that other major player Visible Fictions, a decision that would have left Scotland without any regularly funded children’s theatre companies – and this at the start of Scotland’s Year of Young People. It changed its mind about that one as well, but the misstep suggested that children’s theatre in Scotland, in spite of its global reputation, was not regarded as a vibrant creative sector in its own right.

“What was really worrying was they were going to cut fully funded children’s theatre in Scotland,” says Gill Robertson, artistic director of Catherine Wheels. “The whole experience was horrible, depressing and upsetting. The good thing is it does galvanise you and it does bring people together, because you start to say, ‘What do we want the future of Scottish theatre to look like and how do we support people who are coming through?’”

As a result, next month, the key movers in the children’s sector are banding together to lobby Creative Scotland to make their case. “Catherine Wheels got its money back, but the question is what happens next?” says Robertson. “What happens in three years’ time? We’re trying to protect the sector for the future. Even if Catherine Wheels gets cut the next time, there should still be money ring-fenced for quality work for young people.”

She wants to speak up for those young audiences who, unlike adults, have no say about the art they see: “For me, children’s theatre is not a genre, but a sector and needs to be protected. Within any part of the arts there is always change and always renewal, but how do we protect the artforms?”

Meanwhile, the show must go on. If Catherine Wheels has a shaky relationship with Creative Scotland, it is at least on good terms with the National Theatre of Scotland. After Home in 2006 and Something Wicked This Way Comes in 2008, the two companies are collaborating for a third time. Conceived and directed by Robertson, with actor-turned-playwright Anita Vettesse responsible for the script, Eddie and the Slumber Sisters is an immersive fable about one girl’s bad dreams. Somehow, it manages to combine the trauma of childhood grief with the close-harmony singing of the Andrews Sisters.

“Anita has written a very funny script that’s also dramatic, heart-warming, thought-provoking and exciting,” says Robertson. “The last thing I want to be is sentimental, so it’s got a lot of comedy in it but also a lot of pathos.”

Eddie is a little girl who starts having nightmares after the death of her granny. Three ethereal beings known as the Slumber Sisters show up to make the nightmares happy, singing jolly tunes from Elvis to the Beach Boys, only to find Eddie’s grief is not so easily assuaged.

“For a lot of children, it’s the grandparent they lose first,” says Robertson. “When the grandparent has gone, there is the question of the child’s grief and how to deal with it. I don’t think we’re very good at that. In this case, Eddie isn’t allowed to go to the funeral and the last time she sees her gran, she’s being taken away in an ambulance. She never gets the chance to say goodbye. Her mum is grieving, so Eddie is alone, grieving and feeling guilty because she never said goodbye and feels like it is her fault.”

With a set by Karen Tennent, the production will bring the audience, age eight and up, into the heart of the action. “It came from the idea of wanting to tour around Scotland to non-theatre spaces,” says the director, who’ll be calling in everywhere from Galashiels Volunteer Hall to Dalbeattie Town Hall. “We wanted to be able to transform that space so that when people go into their local hall, they’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a complete environment – and the audience are in among the action. It’s a really exciting environment to come into.”

Eddie and the Slumber Sisters is at the Corn Exchange, Haddington, from 2-3 May and on tour until 3 June,