Grandad And Me
North Edinburgh Arts Centre
The Adventures Of Alvin Sputnik
Church Hill Theatre Studio, Edinburgh
Imaginate, Scotland's international festival of performing arts for children and young people, is back for another year - its 25th, in fact. And along with the silver jubilee congratulations comes a special accolade from the 2014 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS): namely the Cat's Whiskers, an occasional award given in recognition of an outstanding contribution to theatre in Scotland. The calibre of that contribution is to the fore already, in the mix of opening shows.
No matter what age you are, the loss of someone special knocks your entire life off-kilter. In Grandad And Me - for the five-plus age group - a little girl (Marta Masiero) knows that her Grandad has gone forever. But if she makes-believe that they're still sharing picnics or having fantastical adventures - clearly Grandad was a dab hand at storytelling - then he's vividly alive in her memory. Her imagination translates all this into huge, projected animations that see the living-room wall become a stormy sea, a moonscape, a park where spring turns emblematically to winter.
Masiero's wistful body language and happy-sparky flurries of energetic dancing tell us how she feels, but live music expands that wordless narrative through a beguiling strand of song, vocalised nonsense and witty wordplay from Judith Williams and Jon Bishop, both founder members of The Letter J (Scotland). It's the company's first full production, and it's just crammed with fresh invention and adorable surprises.
For older children (nine plus), Alvin Sputnik draws together resolutely gritty themes: the death of a soulmate spouse and the deadly effect of global warming. But as performer St John Cowcher guides Alvin on a journey - not just to the depths of the ocean, but from on-screen animation to hand-in-glove puppetry - something mystical, tender and uplifting swims free of the Earth's pollution and Alvin's grief. Because of love, Alvin becomes a hero. Sure, the way he releases New Earth from the volcanic core of Old Earth is akin to Doctor Who-ha, but this show from The Last Great Hunt (Australia) has at its core a celebration of redemptive humanity (encouraged by a disco soundtrack and hot ukulele music).
Walnuts and water, small toddling steps - but the protective Cocoon (Theater oN, Germany) is too tight to stride out in, let alone jump anywhere. For two to five-year-olds, this two-hander is a sweet, funny early years learning curve where the caterpillar (Minouche Petrusch) discovers nuts are hard, water is wet and walking can be tricky before she becomes a dainty, flittery butterfly - a transformation enhanced by Karl Hackenberger's live music.