“Children deserve great theatre as much as anybody,” says playwright Andrew McGregor – a man leading the charge on youth theatre in Scotland, and the pen behind the Royal Conservatoire’s production of Naughty Cat and the Cheesy Moon this Fringe. Of course, naming him the sole author would be a disservice to the original source of the tale: five-year-olds from a primary school in Port Glasgow.
Taking inspiration from the Royal Court’s Primetime programme in London, McGregor asked school children in Inverclyde to write stories to be turned into plays. One story, about a particularly mischievous cat and her lunar voyage (aided by some grand theft astro), became a musical. It did so well that McGregor took it to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), where he regularly helps out with the acting and musical theatre programmes. “They’d never done a show for children before, so they thought this could be quite exciting,” he says.
The RCS brings annual seasons to the Edinburgh Fringe, usually a mixture of established and new works. This year, the headline piece is Dolly Parton’s iconic 9 to 5, supported by Naughty Cat and the world premiere of John and Gerry Kielty’s Confessions of a Justified Songwriter. The MA Musical Theatre students at the Conservatoire are shared out between the productions, with each student cast in the lead piece plus one new work.
“The main thing that I had to explain at first was that you haven’t drawn the short straw because you’re doing the children’s show,” McGregor asserts. “In Scotland in particular, children’s theatre is viewed just the same way as any other kind of theatre. I make shows every Christmas for children at the Citizens Theatre, and it’s the same actors that you’ll see on the main stage doing Shakespeare that are auditioning for both parts.”
It’s certainly a novel experience for much of the cast. “I’ve never worked the whole way through on a new development before,” explains Ashley Mekili Shoup, an MA student and also the production’s music director. “And I’ve never really worked on a kid’s show before.”
A Melbourne native, Shoup is an accomplished orchestrator, with many great productions on her CV. Surely a children’s musical is a whole other ball game? “It’s really not that different. I think it just allows you to be a little bit sillier!”
Avery Dupuis, a student playing the titular Naughty Cat, has relished the playful workshopping involved in animating McGregor’s vision. “Andy has a mind like a child – he’s just so creative in that way. And it was great because the space that our director created was really free and open.”
“I’ve had some experience before working in children’s theatre,” offers Kieran Bagley, another student playing several roles in Naughty Cat. “But the biggest difference this time is that we won’t be using big extravagant sets and costumes. Just a hint of props to distinguish our characters.”
In bringing the story to life, McGregor tried to be as faithful to the source as possible. “It’s pretty accurate to what they wrote. But it’s turning what was maybe a one paragraph story into a 50-minute show. It’s literally taking every word, every little thing that they’ve said, and saying, ‘Right, how can we expand on that?’”
But he did have to make one small change. Spoiler alert: Naughty Cat ends up in jail. But in the schoolkids’ version, that was the ending. “We’ve basically extended it a little bit so we find out what happens to Naughty Cat at the end; it’s got more of a positive outlook now than it did before. But that’s kids from Port Glasgow for you!”
McGregor is breezy and charming over the phone, despite having a riotously busy year. He’s barely had time to enjoy the fruits of his recently received New Playwrights Award from Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I wonder if working with children is keeping him young? “It keeps my imagination fertile. But I spend so much time making shows with wee people that when I come to work with professional actors, my brain has still got that place to go to. Sometimes I get strange looks, like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
As imaginative as children’s theatre can be, it’s important not to patronise your audience. Shoup recalls her own childhood: “My parents were very much of the ‘you treat kids as adults’ way.” McGregor agrees. “You get called out for it if things don’t make logical sense. They will actually shout at the stage, ‘That doesn’t make sense!’”
Dupuis expands on the importance of quality youth theatre: “It’s a way for kids to learn a new perspective, in a way that’s relatable and easy to understand. Just as theatre for adults has the power to promote change, children’s theatre does as well.”
Not Talking Down
Future Perfect (8-12)
Small Stories, a spin-off company of the hugely accomplished Tall Stories (the people who brought The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom to the stage) dip a toe into the world of time travel with this interactive adventure about decisions and consequences.
Pleasance Courtyard, 2:00pm, 4-14 August, not 10
Jellyfish (3 and older)
Parenthood and mental health are big topics for children's theatre, but the Intrepid Ensemble handle them with aplomb in this visual tale featuring a gigantic glowing jellyfish.
Pleasance Courtyard, 11:45am, 3-29 August, not 15
Legends of the Pacific (0 and over)
If there's anyone who knows what it's like to be young and into theatre, it's the American High School Theatre, who bring a rake of energetic shows over each year. This one is specifically aimed at children of all ages.
Church Hill Theatre, times vary, 6-9 Aug
Little Shakespeare (7-11)
It's 400 years since the deaths of both William Shakespeare and the Ming Dynasty's Tang Xianzu. To mark the occasion, 10-15 year olds from three Chinese schools—Beijing Shijia Primary School, Chongqing Bashu Rhythm Drama Club, and Chongqing Foreign Language School—perform scenes from their plays.
Spotlites, 10:00am, 6 Aug