Theatre reviews: The Dark

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Theatre reviews: The Dark | Miss Ophelia | The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly | Mr Benn | Oops A Daisy

Published on Wednesday 11 May 2011 12:31

With a strong showing from Scottish companies, this year's Imaginate has something for children of all ages, from dark musings on mortality to dancing daisies

The Dark ****

Leith Academy
Miss Ophelia ****
The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly ****
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Mr Benn ***
Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh
Oops A Daisy ***

North Edinburgh Arts Centre

IT GOES without saying that childhood is a process, not an event; and what that means for children's theatre is that there are as many ways of doing it - in terms of style and theatrical language - as there are developmental stages in a child's life. The programme for this year's Bank Of Scotland Imaginate Festival - running until Sunday in theatre spaces across Edinburgh - involves shows that range from simple, beautiful theatrical gestures aimed at babies and toddlers almost too young to talk, to difficult and challenging work for 14-16 year-olds about issues like teenage suicide. And it's a measure of the growing strength of the Scottish children's theatre scene that the homegrown work in the Imaginate programme now effortlessly covers the whole of that range. Indeed, this is one of the least international Imaginate festivals for a while, with no fewer than nine of the 16 shows made in Scotland.

Down at Leith Academy, for instance, in a shed-like hall at the back of the school, the Scottish-based theatre-maker Rob Evans is presenting his new show The Dark. Staged as a promenade performance in a space furnished with odd pieces of domestic and schoolroom clutter, The Dark tells the story of Nicky, who finds herself living alone with her Dad in his old family home on the edge a wood where, 30 years ago, a teenage girl called Natalie was found dead.

Haunted by the story, Nicky starts an art project involving old newspaper cuttings about the death, Natalie's surviving artwork, and her own paintings, and is increasingly drawn into a half-real conversation with a figure from the past, the troubled policeman who investigated the death. The story is essentially about the struggle, in Nicky's mind, between the forces of death, darkness and suspicion that might destroy her, and the forces of life, love and creativity that will enable her to continue her journey into adulthood. Although Evans describes The Dark as a work in progress, it already features a fine script, a beautiful central performance from Helen McAlpine, and wonderful, haunting design from a five-strong team led by Katy Taylor.

Miss Ophelia, by Het Filiaal of the Netherlands, is a show for younger children, recommended for anyone over six. Like The Dark, though, it deals unhesitatingly with some of the toughest stuff of life, and it succeeds brilliantly in arousing children's interest in the life and problems of a character who is old, and far from glamorous. Miss Ophelia tells the whole story - from birth to death - of a lady who works all her life as a prompter in a big city theatre, and of what happens to her when the theatre closes and she faces a future of loneliness and poverty.

The story of how she regains happiness through her love of the great stories told in theatre, and her kindness to the lonely shadows she adopts on her way around the city, is quite beautiful, and told with great affection and ingenuity by performers Ramses Graus and Mirthe Klieverik, on a pleasingly cluttered domestic set full of tiny cut-out puppets, and telling opportunities for shadow-play. And when Miss Ophelia's long life finally draws to a close, the whole show faces up to the inevitability of death with a courage and realism of which Miss Ophelia herself would heartily approve, alongside a powerful sense of the beauty of life, which never dies.

Ingenious is hardly the word for The Ark of Dublin's riotously inventive monologue The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly, written by Finegan Kruckemeyer, directed by Lynne Parker, and performed by the ferociously engaging Louis Lovett (who also co-produces) on a giant packing-case of a set that unfolds to form cities, cinemas, and a ship on the high seas. The story is a science-fiction yarn about a teenage girl called Peggy O'Hegarty, living somewhere like New York, who wakes up one day to find the city empty, and her family gone. The tale of how she gets her parents back is an epic one, told with huge wit and energy; and if the relentless cute self-consciousness of the narrative sometimes jangles the nerves, it has to be said that the show's audience of children over seven adored the whole experience - not only the story, but the style of the telling.

Elsewhere around Imaginate, there's a chance to catch up with shows like Wee Stories' Macbeth show Is This A Dagger? (a fine companion-piece to Dunsinane at the Lyceum), Visible Fictions' recent Scottish Opera co-production Clockwork, the legendary Catherine Wheels show White, for tiny children, and no fewer than four shows from the Stirling-based Starcatchers project creating theatre for tiny tots; these include the delicious mini-promenade show Icepole, and the lovely Oops A Daisy, an unashamedly and refreshingly girly show, created by Sacha Kyle with Arts And Theatres Trust Fife, in which three dancer-actresses in lovely white dresses play three daisies, emerging from their flowerpots for the day, to the delight of children aged between zero and four.

Down at the Brunton Theatre, there's a visit from the much-respected English children's company Tall Stories, with their one-hour musical Mr Benn, for children over four. It's difficult to see why 21st-century kids would empathise very much with the tale of a mid-20th-century Mr Pooter in a bowler hat, breaking out of the tedium of his daily train journey to the office through a visit to a magical fancy dress shop. If the story is a shade pointless, though, the songs and costumes are thoroughly enjoyable, and Paul Curley's central performance is sympathetic enough to encourage occasional roars of audience support, as he discovers his inner hero, and returns refreshed to his "ordinary" life.• Miss Ophelia is at the Traverse Theatre until today; Mr Benn is at the Brunton Theatre until 14 May. The Imaginate Festival runs until 15 May, at venues across Edinburgh. See

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