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Children love Sprout jokes and happy ending

THEATRE REVIEWS

THEATRE REVIEWS

The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot (MacRobert Centre, Stirling)

The Polar Bears Go Wild (Traverse Edinburgh)

Innocence (MacRobert Centre, Stirling)

It's Christmas morning and old Mr McGregor is full of festive cheerfulness - and full of his favourite food, Brussels sprouts. But since he apparently lives alone, who cares if things get a bit windy? Not the three- to six-year-olds in the audience, who quickly take to Billy Riddoch's twinkly senior citizen as he bustles about, exuding good will. But all is not quite what it seems. Why is there a turkey called Belinda living in the chest of drawers? And why does Mr McG get exceedingly upset when paperboy Johnny (Andrew Fraser) says Santa Claus forgot to leave him a present?

When the same thing happens again, a year later, Johnny's show of casual indifference has hardened: he hates Christmas even more than turkeys do and his negativity is catching. But how come Mr McG seems to think Santa's forgetfulness is all his fault? And why is Christmas suddenly cancelled altogether? Aha! Young Sherlocks in the audience will doubtless pick up on the little clues that peep out from Oliver Emanuel's whimsical script - but it's only when Johnny gets seriously worried about his elderly neighbour and visits him that the truth about Santa's everyday identity, and dwindling energy, is fully revealed.

Some sad and dark, unhappy realities hover on the edges of this feel-good, fanciful story. Loneliness, old age - the pain of forgetting or being forgotten - and giving in to bitterness can (and in this production visibly do) sap the brightness out of life. Thinking of others, doing something to help, can bring it back - though getting to drive Santa's diesel sleigh is probably something only Johnny will ever get to do! The happy ending sees the action, and the pop-up surprises in Clare Halleran's front room set, go into splendid overdrive as Christmas Day is re-instated (phew!) and Santa sits back to enjoy more sprouts (ffff-fhe-ew...!)

Last year, The Polar Bears Go Wild was at the MacBob. This year, that tricksy double act of intrepid explorers, Big Bear (Eilidh MacAskill) and Little Bear (Fiona Manson), have arrived at the Traverse where a whole new crop of little 'uns - three to six years would be about right - become giggling, smitten putty in their furry paws. If anything, the show is even more adorable than before, with Manson and MacAskill now so immersed in their distinctly different characters that - even though there is no spoken text woven into the musical score - you just know how each bear would sound, and what they'd say when wrestling with the map, or getting a little selfish over portion sizes, or negotiating the many hazards on the quest to climb a distant snow-topped mountain.

With expressions accentuated by bear-face make-up, nicely-nuanced body language (transmitted through layers of baggy-bulky white) and a tremendous understanding of comic timing, the duo charm us into going on a journey where rhythms and sonorities, percussion and sound effects are as much a part of the landscape as the deceptively simple set (again by that mistress of sudden reveals, Clare Halleran). The fun has stayed delightfully fresh - the furry costumes too! No wonder bear hugs are in demand afterwards.

Back at the MacBob, and the under-three age group - and adults too - can join in the playful mood of Innocence, Fleur Darkin's interactive choreography that references William Blake and his poetry. Attractively varied live music, from Paul Bradley, beckons everyone to follow the lead given by Joan Cleville and four other members of Scottish Dance Theatre as they conjure up physical images - soaring angels, prowly tigers, leaves on trees - that inspired Blake in his writing and painting. Their own movement is a delight to watch, but what impresses even more is how they relate, and adapt to, the tinies who wander in and out of the space having a toddling, crawling, clapping and chuckling time of it.

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200417