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18 August 2012

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

There's plenty adults will enjoy, too.

By Nicky Woolf

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.

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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.

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