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Tales retold

Norma Cohen on Christmas shows. A clang of cymbals ushers in the Young Vic's Grimm Tales of journeys, tasks and transformations. The stories are powerfully adapted, with a starkly lyrical ring, by the poet Carol Ann Duffy. As actors walk into the charmed circle, a few tin buckets as props, the audience is gripped by the dark potency of the tales, presented with flashes of gold, rough humour and delicate wonder.

Respecting the audience's intelligence, looking death and cruelty straight in the eye, Tim Supple's production doesn't pander to squeamishness. In a gory version of Cinderella, "Ashputtel", the stepdaughters eagerly chop off their heels and toes to squash a "perfect" foot into a golden shoe, only to have a dove prick out their eyeballs as punishment.

As in all supernatural tales, harshness is streaked with beauty: a tear-watered twig magicks into a glittering tree, fans and twirling bowlers flutter to separate lentils from ash in "Ashputtel". Hansel and Gretel tangle in a forest of twisting arms; a wooden bird flaps plaintively from an axe-head while Linda Kerr Scott as the old crone, is booted into her cauldron, witchy nails clawing through the floorboards. A dangled frankfurter stirring a miniature pot is wolfed by a dog on casters; "Simpleton" Dummling (Kerr Scott as a scull-capped, Durer incarnation) jostles with a floppy Golden Goose and its glued-up, burgher entourage, hurtling across the audience in a Breughelesque romp.

Using a bare stage, "grotesque" design and movement by painterchoreographer Melly Still, the show offers enough material to keep schools steeped in storytelling into the next century.

At The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, the old, vibrant magic resurfaces in Philip Hedley's boisterously irreverent Sleeping Beauty fronted by a pair of rabble-rouser rockers ("d'ya wanna be in my gang, my gang?") and a shimmying, cartoonesque "It's-for-your-own-good" nanny.

They are matched by Darlene (Hotlips) Johnson's vengeful Maultash. Teachers boogying in the aisles, honeyed musical comedy and Jenny Tiramani's sumptuous, technicolor design make this an anarchic hit.

In the spirit of founder Bernard Miles, who staged this "riproaring saga of sea, pirates and hunt for buried treasure" each Christmas, the Mermaid Theatre hosts an all-male Treasure Island whose star turn is a soaring timber yard of a set. Pirates burst out of the woodwork which transforms into a great, revolving ship.

There are gunpowder flares, spectacular fight scenes staged by William Hobbs, a trick fall down a rope ladder, and a screeching storm. Amid the cast, an eye-swivelling Cap'n Flint, and a guileless young Jim Hawkins, shine. The stirring first half is muted by a mystifying second act, some blurred West Country accents and a Long John Silver (Roy Marsden) without enough rogue devil.

"Nightmares? Perfectly harmless. They're only Lords and Ladies on horseback; dreams going out for a ride." Harking back to the text's Danish folk origins, Crowena's kindly words sum up Polka Theatre's reassuringly jaunty version of Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen. A hoary Snow Queen whispers icicles to boy Kay, ensnared by the Frozen North. Hummable tunes based on Scandinavian popular songs, a band of brigands marching to thumping kettle drums and Inca-sun angels, melting dancing snow dervishes, lighten Gerda's quest to reclaim her friend, as she flies, hair streaming, astride a Cockney crow who talks in "aarrgghhs". But there's a dramatic gap between pantoesque commedia and moral messages about true friendship, the soul and the child inside.

An all-singing, all-dancing, traditional Jack and the Beanstalk raised the roof at the Hackney Empire ("nightmare on Mare Street"), boasting a terrifying eight foot giant, an elephant of a cow, a charismatic Ray Emmet Brown as Silly Billy and a lot of knockabout pastry swatting. My ears are still ringing.

Young Vic 071 928 6363. Theatre Royal Stratford East 081 534 0310. Mermaid 071 236 2211. Polka 081 543 4888. Hackney Empire 081 985 2424.

More reviews next week and on December 30.

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