Chennai's first international theatre festival for children had many creative moments

“Thank you,” squeaks a little voice. I drop my notes in surprise, wondering where it's from. Then I look down and see a knee-high kid in pigtails, a frilly dress and big toothy grin.

The rest of the Korean children chime in. “Thank you for coming to our play,” they sing, posing prettily in their bright costumes and big smiles. The audience, filtering out of the theatre is delighted. It's all handshakes and group hugs.

Only Cruella De Vil could give this cast a negative review.

Chennai's first international theatre festival for children, organised by The Little Theatre might have had its hiccups, but in the end it did raise the bar. Children's productions have relied on the cutesy factor for far too long.

‘Choon-Hyang True Love' by Theatre Seoul (Korea's first English Musical Theatre company for children) is remarkable because it isn't fuelled by the aww-factor. Although its cast is undeniably adorable, featuring tiny members who dance, prance and sing with single-minded determination, the production is demanding, pushing each actor to really work his/her roles. No space for random wandering and waving on stage to please proud parents, thank goodness. Even the songs and dances are tight and intricately choreographed, using each child's abilities to create spectacular scenes, featuring drumming, juggling and dancing, all aided by flamboyant props ranging from bamboo fans to sparkly butterflies.

The story, adapted from a Korean tale, is centuries-old. The production, however, takes the best from every age to maximise colour. This works in terms of costumes — the stage is a delicious riot of candy floss with all the vivid sashes, flirty frills and pointy shoes. It's also a smart devise to keep young audiences from getting fidgety.

However, the tale does sit uncomfortably in a contemporary setting.

Choon-Hyang falls in love with nobleman Mong-Ryong. In classic love story tradition, he's the cat's whiskers. He can wield a sword and a fan with equal dexterity. And he's a whiz at b-boying. (Yes. Break dance. And he's good enough to join Gwen Stefani on tour.) Yet, Choon-Hyang is a product of stubborn patriarchy. Her role's reduced to that of a helpless wilting wallflower, waiting incessantly for her ‘master.' (“Look out for Cruella De Vil/ If she doesn't scare you/ No evil thing will.”)

The script, studded with songs, is simple wavering on bland. Yet the spirited cast lifts it with their synchronised dancing, quirky humour and sincere emotion.

Since the actors spoke in an unfamiliar Korean accent, the words were not always clear, a problem magnified by a poor sound system. However, the actors were so vocal with their body language it didn't hinder the play as much as it could have.

The home production, the ‘Kingdom of Joomba' musical was a spirited, original children's theatre, featuring a script and music written specifically for this festival. Working with masks and flamboyant props, including a cloud of fat bees, it had its moments. Yet, juxtaposed with the Korean production, it did display how much our children's theatre in English needs to improve.

The festival also showcased ‘Matti, Patti and Bu' By Fliegendes Theatre, Berlin. Targeted at the three to six year olds, this short piece of play theatre managed to connect, and a good thing too. Children that age are as concerned about performers' feelings as they are about the emotions of a jam jar.

Marie-Elsa and Rudolf Schmid Drelon use a combination of shadow puppets, computer graphics and audio-visual elements to tell the story of Matti. Sitting at two tables equipped with laptops and lights, with a screen as a backdrop, they tease the audience's imaginations, conjuring up everything from bouncy footballs to fearsome monsters.

The children contribute incessantly. Not always helpfully. For instance as Rudolf dramatically folds a zero into two, to make it into a boat, he asks “What is this?” “A spoon… A chip… half an apple,” the children yell. Then one little boy stands on his seat and squeals definitively, “That's a smile!”

What more can we say? Coochie coochie coo?

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