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Drama that grabs you

The best in young people's theatre needs to be the best in anyone's theatre, says Timothy Ramsden, opening a four-page listing of the season's rep and touring attractions

This new year has inherited well from the old. Two trios of theatre stories are brought back revised but still much the same as their 1995 prototypes. Far apart in location and style, they share top quality imagination-grabbing theatricality. In Scotland, Communicado's brew of sound and image in Tall Tales for Cold Dark Nights (originally For Small People) is a perfect example of how the best in young people's theatre needs to be the best in any theatre and that when this is the case, theatre for young people is theatre for all ages. Among its many delights the show included the best back-end of a cow ever.

Exeter's unsung glory Theatre Alibi is less specifically aiming at the young but older pupils should enjoy their new story trio Little White Lies. Last summer, the central piece was less well focused but the opening anecdote and final tale, not to mention the entrances, exits and scene changes were remarkable. Two companies touring from bases remote from London but offering theatre of national standards. Do not miss.

There's a trend for repertory theatres to team with a young person's theatre company. Leicester and Cardiff have done that. Each theatre gains a Christmas show by specialists for the very young, while the company gains a new piece to tour. Following Christmas in Leicester, Quicksilver take Friendly Feelings around. It is finely tuned to early audiences, gentle and never using complete blackout.

The set is a giant bed on and around which two friends create an imaginative journey. The quest idea and the way an everyday, safe environment becomes also an imaginary landscape make this an ideal nursery piece.

Theatre Centre's A Spell of Cold Weather, a Charles Way piece seen in Cardiff's Sherman Arena over Christmas, is more ambitious. It too blends the ordinary and extraordinary, with a visiting niece and a put upon Puckish sprite called Tomos Trickman bringing new life to a crusty, wintery couple in what is finally a moving story.

Equally moving is Norwich Puppet Theatre's Thumbelina which in 35 minutes involves an array of puppet types, and packs in a lot of laughs while always moving its story on. Each animal character is individualised and the set, which allows for thrills and spills, is artfully assembled out of everyday objects. A gem. While Parasol's larger scale The Snow Queen looks very attractive, the acting seems over conscious it is being played to children and the show has the feel of a period piece.

Comedy time in the South where Salisbury Playhouse has kicked off its Norman Conquests trilogy with a Table Manners set against an as yet unhelpful neutral background but with performances that do the right thing - play the character - much more than the wrong - play the mannerisms. There's an especially good Annie (Rebecca Charles) who for once does not seem terminally defeated from the outset. In Coward one has to play the style effortlessly and while act one of Adrian Reynolds' Basingstoke production of Private Lives has Rupert Frazer and Judy Buxton rather showing their frayed edges as characters the whole soon hots into a fresh and funny production, aided by Tim Goodchild's sets, the best in art deco since Salisbury's equally fine production some years ago.

On tour, Kneehigh's The King of Prussia shows how successfully a company known for physical and visual flair can use their skills to support and not overwhelm a text. Even smugglers had their codes of honour two hundred years ago - but not the iron-willed Lady with whom the eponymous smuggler teams up. Fast-moving and inventive it is an object lesson in theatrical storytelling and economical, fluid staging.

Nothing's more economical than the one-person show and Tom Watt has taken over the obsessive football fan in Fever Pitch, now touring. In his first performance Watt had all the ingredients of the character; by now he should have relaxed into a strong perfonnance of material as much about obsession as football - almost.

Empty Space's tour of Fav'rite Nation may mark the National Trust centenary but it's no mere memorial; instead it shows how real Victorian values, the need to improve society by improving people's lives and fight off commercial big brothers lay behind the Trust. For these insights its pedestrian elements can be forgiven. Terry Johnson's Freud and Dali, farce and thoughtfulness sandwich Hysteria tours after its Royal Court Classics London season. Brilliant, clever, intelligent, but much of the farce is After Magritte out of What the Butler Saw and none the better for it. There is at least one terrific performance. otherwise the acting is decent but only that.

Power corrupts - and not only the powerful. Switching between modern families and historical slave transportation, Black Mime Theatre's Dirty Reality II looks at the struggle for a strong black identity against the pressures of assimilation into a dominant culture. Some scenes, without their context, would be simplistic but others offer strong movement and comic or poignant images.

Not all performances in Oxford Stage Company's Twelfth Night are first-rate, but many (Viola, Maria, Aguecheek) are fine and John Retallack's production is soaked in the atmospheric music of Chris Herwson and arranger David Brett. Though Ben Omerod provides moment of autumnal lighting this is a production about youth, its contrary emotions and coming to terms with life's complexities. Love and loss are given their own whirligig in the hand-holding dances of Viola and Sebastian which frame the action.

Finally, as we began, another revival - Northern Broadsides' The Cracked Pot; a flavourful northern relocation of Kleist's classic comedy. Richly humorous; you'd be cracked or potty to miss it.

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