Review: Edinburgh International Children's Festival 2019

Review: Edinburgh International Children's Festival 2019

The Invisible Man / credit: Kurt Van der Elst

Our favourites from this year's line-up include The Invisible Man, Small Wonders and I Wish I Was A Mountain

Each year, the Edinburgh International Children's Festival team scours the globe to find fresh, unique and challenging work for young audiences, from toddlers to teens. The 2019 programme served up many thought-provoking visual feasts – here are our favourites from this year's line-up.

The Invisible Man
Children are often audible during live theatre, but the amount of screams and squeals this complete hoot of a show provokes is on a whole other level. Theater Artemis make surprise a key priority, aiming to continually take its audience in unexpected directions, which leads to delicious shocks and thrills that are utterly delightful even for the grown-ups in the crowd, well aware of the technical wizardry at play.

The performance starts with a stage manager, pacing in frustration at the lack of an audience (he claims not to see us), performers or indeed a show. When a door suddenly opens by itself and an invisible figure sits at the piano and starts playing, the first squeals emerge. And they keep on coming, with each strange, ghostly happening.

Making the audience 'invisible' in the eyes of all but one of the performers is ingenious, leading to riotous cries of 'we're here!' from the young crowd. As too is the clever filming, which cuts between real-time and pre-recorded video to hilarious effect (and yes, more screaming). Who and what is or isn't visible constantly shifts, ensuring that audience engagement never flags.

The 'show' itself doesn't happen – just 60 minutes of pre-amble while the performers and stage manager try to work out what's going on. You can scarcely imagine the amount of time this Netherlands-based company put into planning and preparing The Invisible Man, but every single second pays off.

I Wish I Was A Mountain
Given that this show is all about wishes, I'll put in a bid for Toby Thompson to come round to my house and entertain my family and I every evening. Netflix no more – just this gentle yet captivating storyteller delivering tales of wonder in his wonderfully poetic language.

Inspired by a Herman Hesse fairy tale, I Wish I Was A Mountain takes us to a far-away place and long-ago time, 'where people didn't have Facebook – just faces, and books'. Attending their annual festival, the villagers are delighted to find a side-show where you can make a wish come true. Inevitably, most wish for wealth or beauty, neither of which last. But what if, poses Thompson, we wished to have exactly what we've got right now, this minute – then we'd never have need for wishes.

It's a penetrating thought, perhaps aimed more at the adults in the audience – but the tale itself, and its delivery, is for everyone. As the story unfolds, the stage – covered in tiny wooden houses, record players and a piano – all come into their own. Rooftops are opened, lights twinkle, LPs are popped onto the turntable and piano keys are played. The sense of wonder produced with each gift the set gives us sitting amiably alongside Thompson's calm and assured delivery.

In a post-show Q&A, one little girl asks 'why was the story sad sometimes?' – 'because life is sad sometimes,' replies Thompson, 'and sometimes it's happy and joyous.' Yes, it is, especially with a storyteller like him to brighten our day.

Review: Edinburgh International Children's Festival 2019

New Owner / credit: Daniel James Grant

New Owner
If there was a measurement system for cuteness, New Owner would break it. So unbelievably charming is this show from Australian theatre company The Last Great Hunt, it's impossible not to engage with it.

As a piece of theatre it's incredibly clever, seamlessly fusing puppetry, live action and animation. And as a piece of storytelling, New Owner is funny, moving, sad and hopeful in equal measure.

We meet our two key characters early on – Mabel, an elderly lady who has just lost her husband, and Bernie, a tiny dog living in a shelter and longing for a new owner. You don't need to be a genius to work out what comes next, and as the duo strikes up a friendship there's a lot of love in the room.

As with all great stories, however, things don't go quite according to plan and Bernie finds himself lost in the city, inside sewage pipes, junk yards and old trucks. Each step of his journey finds Bernie (a puppet) interacting in perfect time to an animated world that moves alongside him and the new doggy friend he meets.

Although aimed at ages 7-12, it seems unlikely that younger and older children wouldn't respond to both the visual and emotional elements – and adults will have their hearts melted for sure.

I'm not ashamed to say that, at the end of the show, I queued up to give those two pooch puppets a tummy rub. You would, too.

Emil & The Detectives
There's something wonderfully old-school about this narrative work by Australian theatre company Slingsby, both in the story and its telling. Erich Kästner's book was written in 1929, so there's an innocence and simplicity to life that's lost to us now. But back then, as now, one thing remains constant – some people cause harm, some offer help – and Kästner's tale lays that out in the simplest of terms.

Travelling from his home town to the big city, Emil is mugged while sleeping and robbed of the precious money he was due to give his grandmother on arrival. He knows exactly who did it – the mean man he shared a carriage with – and sets about tracking him down. Enter a large gang of children (the 'detectives' of the title), filled with bright ideas and eager to help.

What is most impressive about this theatrical adaptation is that it's performed by just two people. Costumes, props, illustrative drawings and a whole lot of energy fill in the gaps. An entire hotel is folded out of a suitcase, a train carriage, cars and cafes are built and dismantled or whisked into view, then re-invented.

Children's theatre is often pre-occupied with taking today's big themes and communicating them to a young audience – and rightly so – but sometimes, it's fun just to watch an exciting adventure unfold. Especially one that's told in such a clever, funny, dynamic and visually compelling way as this.

Small Wonders
An incredible site-specific promenade show that takes audiences to a place where imagination makes anything possible.
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This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing
Re-imagined fairytale captures the love that binds us and the sense of adventure that sends us out into the world.
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Us / Them
Quietly harrowing but even-handed show on terrorism and young people. Previously reviewed before the festival.
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