The Red Tree might be the most stylistically challenging piece of children's theatre at this year's Edinburgh Fringe. The roots of the piece exist in Shaun Tan's children's book of the same name, while the physical theatre provides a strong trunk, from which branches and buds of all kinds of exquisite details and devices shoot. The play is entirely in mime. Everything is abstract, everything symbolic. This is a risky gambit for the play's demographic, but Featherweight create a production that the majority of their young audience find absolutely transfixing.
Whilst the staging is elaborate - large set-pieces, esoteric movement and lots of sequences lit only by torches - the story is very simple and its ideas almost pre-verbal. The show's choreographer, Madeline Shann, plays a young girl who feels bored, isolated and unable to imagine new opportunities. Her turmoil is sequenced beautifully in segments of dance and movement – the impression of deep-sea diving, in which the ocean backdrop transforms into a rather large jellyfish, was particularly dazzling. This is, of course, a voyage of discovery and we are heading for somewhere far more hopeful: the red tree and the hope and imagination that it represents.
Each of these sequences accompany lines from Tan's book that unravel in front of us on horizontal scrolls. The programme has these as well in case the children miss them. Whilst these give a flavour of the emotion that the scene depicts – such as 'Darkness overcomes you' - how exactly the images relate to this emotion is left in the lap of the audience. And it's this that makes the show so apt for children: they are allowed to make their own meaning, to stretch their imaginations. Ask them what they think each scene was showing, and what that in turn showed us about the girl. The more talk this show generates, the more children will get out of it.
And then there are some things that don't need explaining: the spectacle of bubbles blown in the black box space, soundtracked by Rob Hart's beguiling electronic score; or the ingenious presentation of the red tree itself. This will be a very hard play for some children and it flatters its audience with a great deal of maturity. If you think they'd be up for the challenge, the seeds of The Red Tree could plant a whole orchard of enjoyment.