Snow queens and singing tigers: children's theatre at the Edinburgh Festival

There's plenty adults will enjoy, too.

Comedian David Mills jokingly sums up the Festival cliché: “I see the children out there, and they're so thrilled to be sat in a sweaty basement with a bunch of burnt out hippies producing Puss in Boots in sign language.”

But while the Fringe may have a reputation for drunken, off-the wall shows, and there are plenty of Naked Hitler: The Musicals and The Improvised Vagina Monologues out there, there are many shows for families with children to enjoy as well.

Here are a pick of some of the best; shows that you can bring your children to without dreading a saccharine Tellytubby experience. These are kids' shows that parents will love.

Aireborne Theatre's The Snow Queen is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale that brims with charm. The audience joins a troupe of travelling storytellers in their camp, and the talented ensemble cast bring the tale to life using the brooms, pots, pans and hanging washing the travellers have to hand. The performances are perfectly-judged and beautifully choreographed; children from the very young to the almost-adolescent are held spellbound, shouting out only to warn the heroine of danger, or join in with the original musical accompaniment.

Swamp Juice is probably the most visually impressive show on this list. Shadow-puppeteer Jeff Achtem controls the puppets and visuals – all built out of reclaimed materials – and all the sound effects himself. The story is simple, but the graphical devices get more and more complex and interactive all the way through, building to a jaw-dropping three-dimensional climax.

Serious theatre geeks will get an enormous amount out of Dr Brown Brown Brown Brown Brown And His Singing Tiger. Absurdist visual comedian Phil Burgers is a clowning instructor who learned his craft with the infamous Philippe Gaulier, himself one of Jacques Lecoq's most famous pupils. A master of physical comedy for both adults and children, his every move, or rather, that of his stage alter ego Dr Brown, is a consummate pleasure to watch. Nobody can hold an audience in the palm of their hand like him, and this show is no exception.

Fringe veterans Belt Up Theatre specialise in atmospheric audience participation. Their current oeuvre boasts three shows inspired by the life and works of three famous children's authors: JM Barrie, Lewis Carroll and their newest, A Little Princess, is based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. These guys love engaging with their audience, and have created the site-specific experience of a drawing room in a buttoned-up English boarding school. They recruit their audience to their ranks to experience and participate in the story of the seven-year-old girl who is dragged to it, rather than merely bear witness to it on stage.

The Magician's Daughter by Little Angel theatre has impeccable theatrical pedigree. It is based on The Tempest, written by former Children's Laureate Michael Rosen and backed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Like much of this list, it is a mixed-media melange of puppetry, music and storytelling, following Miranda's daughter as she explores her island home. Rosen, as ever, has the people's touch; and his blend of comedy and knowing nods to the Shakespeare is delightful.

Beginning with a true story of schoolboy with leukaemia whose parents create a fantastical imaginary world for him to inhabit, Firehouse Creative Productions worked with the Whittington children's hospital in North London to investigate how the imagination can be a supremely powerful tool to overcome illness and adversity. The end result, Superjohn is riotous fun for kids, but also deeply, deeply moving for adults.

Children watch a street performer at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. Photo: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle