Danger in the manger;Entertainment

17th December 1999 at 00:00
Janette Wolf previews the TV and radio highlights, and Heather Neill checks out live events on offer over the holiday.

Children have every right to feel confused about the millennium. The date should coincide with Christmas Day, shouldn't it? Better not mention that there is also a discrepancy of several years between the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus and the official change of the century. Or that the calendar was substantially altered about 400 years ago. Just get on with celebrating.

The Young Vic's seasonal production, David Farr's The Nativity, retells the old story as folk tale rather than religious lesson and has no worries about introducing episodes that are nowhere to be found in the Gospels. Mary and Joseph are even taken to Hell and threatened with losing the precious baby before he is born. Nevertheless, the tone of the piece, its down-to-earth language, its lively, unsanctimonious Mary (Nina Sosanya) and the company's trademark storytelling style - clear, often humorous but never patronising, make this easy to recommend for children of all backgrounds.

The end of the first half, when the baby (a well-designed life-like hand-puppet) is born, is very moving. After the interval, a knock-about shepherd scene follows the medieval tradition of introducing broad humour at this point. Following the arrival of the kings, the massacre of the innocents by Herod's soldiers is just horrifying enough, with red streamers representing a blood-bath.

But you can't send children home on a note of tragedy, so we are told that all the babies became little stars - and there they are, twinkling above. This is a bit sentimental given the robust approach otherwise, but enjoy the circular set with its stage traps full of musical instruments and surprises, the beggar who transforms magically into the Angel Gabriel and a well-intentioned gangling donkey played by Toby Sedgwick. Tickets: 0171 928 6363.

The first play in the National Theatre's three-part The Mysteries, a no-nonsense but moving version of the medieval plays by Tony Harrison, tells the Nativity story in Yorkshire dialect. This promenade production is a millennial revival of the Eighties hit. Tickets: 0171 452 3000.

And at Birmingham Rep, award-winning playwright Peter Whelan has written Nativity, which draws on the Gospels and other contemporary writings. The production features a spectacular set as well as humour, music, dance and storytelling. In this version, Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth from exile in Egypt with a three-year-old Jesus. Tickets: 0121 236 4455.

If the Nativity has to be voted the story of the season, other children's favourites can be found elsewhere this Christmas. The West Yorkshire Playhouse presents Stig of the Dump, Clive King's enduring story of the friendship between two boys, one of whom seems to have survived from pre-historical times in a disused chalk-pit. Richard Williams's retelling aims to include "all the comedy, mischief and magic" of the original. Tickets: 0113 213 7700.

At the National Theatre, Honk! The Ugly Duckling, directed by Julia Mackenzie, is based on Hans Andersen's popular story, while the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon has Mary Norton's classic The Borrowers retold by Charles Way. The tiny people who live beneath the floorboards are realised, we are told, in a style "that uses all manner of theatrical devices to make the imagination work", and experience many exciting adventures before happiness reigns. Tickets: 0181 543 4888.

Storyteller extraordinaire Adrian Mitchell is busy as ever this Christmas. His magical, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its war-time setting, is being revived in Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403 403) by the Royal Shakespeare Company while The Mammoth Sails Tonight is launched by Playbox Theatre in Warwick (01926 419555). Inspired by The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, the show takes the audience on a voyage of adventure into myths and across time. In London, a choir of children from the London Welsh School lend their voices to the Swansea Grand production of Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales at the Bloomsbury Theatre (0171 388 8822). Enter the land of harp-shaped hills and laver bread in this adaptation by Mitchell and Jeremy Brookes.

Almost every town has its panto or seasonal show, so don't miss local events, but if the millennium is uppermost in your mind, you could do worse than visit the Theatre Royal York for Old Mother Milly, "a Dame's panto" about the end of the world (01904 623568), or get as close as possible to the Dateline by joining the Theatre Royal Stratford East as they play away at Greenwich Theatre (0208 8587755). Their Dick Whittington, with its London mayoral plot, could hardly be more topical.

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