Art beat

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Captain Hook's ship, looking not in the least sinister, was being polished up on the Olivier stage last week. Behind it on the bare revolve, the Darlings' nursery and Neverland lay in a colourful heap, ordinary lumps of scenery awaiting a touch of magic. Peter Pan , the National Theatre's 1997 sell-out Christmas production, is being revived with a new cast: David Troughton takes over from Ian McKellen as the dastardly iron-handed pirate, and Justin Salinger is the boy who never grows up. John Caird and Trevor Nunn's script mixes spectacle with psychological truth - a case of the audience never having to grow out of it.

The flying is especially heart-stopping, with the children soaring into the sky over London on their way to adventure. It looks such fun, but, says Annie Gosney, production manager at the Olivier and thus in charge of the nuts and bolts of the production and of safety: "It's dificult to make yourself look like anything other than a sack of potatoes once you're in the harness, and it's very tiring." Magic, it seems, is hard work, but in this case worth every ache and bead of sweat. (0171 452 3000)

Christmas show-time is all about rediscovering or re-inventing the familiar. Sometimes that means Victorian tradition, sometimes it means unearthing much older elements of our culture. "Our" includes considerable diversity as traditional English stories frequently have parallels in other parts of Europe, Asia and even Africa. The ancient tale of Cinderella , a pantomime staple, is at least 1,000 years old. The Chinese version dates from the end of the last millennium and it has surfaced since in Germany, Italy, France and The Arabian Nights. Pantos are usually based on Charles Perrault's 17th-century account, although the Grimms' tougher "Aschenputtel", in which the step-sisters mutilate their feet and have their eyes plucked out by birds, is becoming familiar to London audiences.

The Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, with Improbable Theatre Company, is presenting a hybrid Cinderella which acknowledges Angela Carter's dark retelling. Stirred into the mixture is fashionable impro - this ensures immediacy and humour, but allows tuneless instant songs - magical Victorian transformation scenes, witty puppets and elements of traditional pantomime, including two clumsy Ugly Sisters in drag. But the prince is male, and there are no topical references.

A small cast manages to suggest other characters with clever use of cardboard cut-outs and scrunched-up newspapers. The Sisters cut off a few toes to fit into the slipper but survive with their eyes intact. Look out for the foyer installation by theatre designer Matt Edwards. This contains further retellings by children from primary schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, who have been working with storyteller Jan Blake. (0181 741 2311).

Cinderella is sweeping up nightly on plenty of other stages this Christmas, including Oxford Playhouse (01865 798 600) and the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London (0181 534 0310). Chicken Shed Theatre offers children performing Cinderella in Boots in north London (0181 292 9222) and in south London's Lewisham, Linda Robson (of TV's Birds of a Feather) is in the cast (0181 690 0002). The Orchard Theatre is touring the West Country with The Cinder Girl , based on an Arab version of the story. A camel and lashings of Turkish Delight are a couple of the more unusual ingredients. (01271 373356 for details).

Into the Woods , Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical fairy-tale collage is really for grown-ups. Cinderella's story (complete with chopped feet and blindness, but with beautiful, step-sisters) is interwoven with those of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk. Lust,death, knowing humour and finger-wagging morals about taking responsibility for one's actions and the necessity for the young to make their own way in life place this outside the scope of anyone under 14. Witty and full of surprises, the production at the Donmar, central London, boasts a mysterious pine forest and some excellent performances, including one from Sheridan Smith, newly-graduated from the National Youth Music Theatre, as a mischievous Red Riding Hood. (0171 240 4882).

London's Young Vic Theatre Company has moved out of Grimm territory this year to stage Dominic Cook's adaptation of Arabian Nights . The multi-ethnic cast demonstrates the skills in ensemble playing and storytelling now expected at this venue. Hundreds of primary schoolchildren enjoyed the high ugh-factor in several of the six tales last week, especially the quartering of greedy Kasim, brother of Ali Baba, and the penchant of Amina, "the wife who wouldn't eat", for corpse suppers.

The performance is perhaps a little long for the youngest spectators, but they are rewarded by a charming happy ending. Incidentally, Shah-razad married the embittered emperor, gambling that her tales would intrigue him,to save other young women from death. She thus becomes a brave as well as clever heroine, like other women in these often previously over-simplified stories. (0171 928 6363).

Delving deeper into our past in search of myth and legend rather than folk tale, a story-telling company called Wonderful Beast has come up with The Wolf Road . Writer Nick McCarty and director Penny Cherns have woven a sequence of related tales from Norse mythology by concentrating on the character of Loki, a mischief-maker who bears some resemblance to Puck and Lucifer. Six actors, a couple of musicians and simple staging will bring to life grand, larger-than-mundane events and characters including Thor the god of thunder and the sensual goddess Freyja. In a world peopled by dwarfs and giants, Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world, is fast approaching. (The Gate Theatre, 0171 229 0706, from December 17).

Like Tolkien, C S Lewis was enthralled by Northern mythology, which influenced his most popular work, The Chronicles of Narnia. The Royal Shakespeare Company has staged the best-loved of the five books, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , adapted by Adrian Mitchell, at Stratford upon Avon this Christmas. Director Adrian Noble sees the cosmic battle between good and evil as a reflection of Lewis's own experience of the Second World War and reminds us that the four children who find the world of perpetual winter beyond the wardrobe are evacuees. The noble lion Aslan, a Christ-figure to some, is a suitable Christmas hero although, as Noble says, he is "a very un-Anglican Jesus", quite prepared to kill if necessary. And the whole story can just as easily be seen as an unmetaphorical adventure in a strange, parallel world. (In repertory: 01789 295623).

There are hundreds of shows, simple and lavish, magical and risque, all over the United Kingdom, full of songs and morals, loyal cats and twisting beanstalks, wicked witches and cunning wolves. At the turn of every year we come face-to-face with our neglected folk culture and make it once more our own.

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