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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Cerrie Burnell's Magical Playroom, Edinburgh Festival Fringe preview

Published in Edinburgh Festivals Magazine

THE LAST time Cerrie Burnell was in a play in Edinburgh she was visibly pregnant. It was 2008 and she had been cast as a nurse in The First to Go, a tough drama by Nabil Shaban about the relatively unknown Nazi programme to exterminate people with disabilities. "The character had a baby at the end of the play, so it was a big of an in-joke," she recalls.

This was before Burnell came to national attention as a children's television presenter with a disability of her own. Her right arm finishes at the elbow and that was all it took for small-minded viewers to complain to the BBC claiming she was "scaring" their children and giving them nightmares.

Happily, Burnell is too well-balanced to let such prejudice get her down. She is someone who is (as she should be) entirely comfortable with her body. "I've had it all my life, so I think about it as much as I think about the colour of my eyes or my big toe," she says. "It's just part of me and I haven't got time to consider it."

That's not to say the issue of disability rights is not dear to her. She thinks it's important to promote the cause of all minorities and was delighted to see attitudes to disability shifting last summer during the Paralympic Games. "I consider it in terms of my work, but I don't consider it on a personal basis," she says.

It is a theme she has returned to repeatedly in her work. Her first play for children, 2007's Winged: A Fairytale, was about a one-winged fairy. Her forthcoming picture book, Snowflakes, is about a girl who discovers she is "unique and perfect in her own way". And her new Fringe show, The Magical Playroom, is about a girl who wants to be a ballerina and is furious when she is told she has to wear a false arm for dancing lessons.

Premiering in Edinburgh before a national tour, the one-woman show follows six-year-old Liberty Rose as she rebels against this imposition, just as the nine-year-old Burnell herself did (she hasn't worn a prosthetic arm since). The little girl's only escape from the injustice of the adult world lies in the imaginative landscape of her toys.

"The Magical Playroom is a very different story to Winged, but it's kind of about the same thing," says Burnell, who stars in the play. "I'm in a really lucky position to have the CBeebies audience already on board – and when I say audience, I mean the mums and dads as much as the kids. Because I am a disabled role model (whether I wanted that or not), I want to use that in the most positive way I can by telling a story that hasn't been told before about a little girl with one hand."

She knows she is describing a very particular set of circumstances but the play, which is aimed at the over-threes, has a resonance that affects all audiences. "The real message is a universal theme that anyone can understand which is about disobeying the authority of your parents," says Burnell, whose daughter, now five, will be accompanying her to Edinburgh. "It's something every child goes through – and possibly every adult goes through if their parents are alive! It's about children being able to have autonomy over their lives and being able to make choices that are right for them. It’s also about the importance of listening to children – I hope it inspires the parents to be more confident to do that."

The Magical Playroom
Pleasance Courtyard, 31 July–18 August (not 14), 11am
From £7.50, Tel: 0131 556 6550
© Mark Fisher 2013

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