I'm a believer in fairies thanks to Peter Pan

26th December 1997 at 00:00
The good news is that there's more quality theatre in London to choose from this Christmas than in living memory. The bad news is that the choosing won't be easy - and neither will booking it.

From where I'm sitting, there's a draw for top of the class between two very different plays which each, in their own way, exude a unique spirit: the Young Vic's More Grimm Tales adapted by Carol Ann Duffy and directed by Tim Supple and the National Theatre's Peter Pan adapted by John Caird and Trevor Nunn.

Peter Pan is magical, funny, moving and sensual. The many layers of meaning in the original translate brilliantly onto the stage, framed in sets by John Napier that move from the comforting Bloomsbury nursery to the various wilds of Never Land - including an ingenious mermaid-lined lagoon. Centre stage is Daniel Evans as the boy who never grew up, by turns brave and vulnerable, arrogant and child-like. Ian McKellen was born to be Captain HookMr Darling, childishly tyrannical, tyrannically childish and as much in need of a mother as the Lost Boys.

It is that poignancy, so true to JM Barrie's original, that gives the play its depth. While narrator Alec McCowen walks - and occasionally flies - on and off stage with the gentle knowingness of a late 20th-century commentator, the yearning of everyone from the pirates to the peevish Tinker Belle to the Boys for love and warmth suffuses this Peter Pan with a sweet melancholy. You, too, will come out into the grey cold believing in fairies.

Following on from the barnstorming 1994 success of Grimm Tales which led to an international tour, we are treated to a further seven short tales performed with elegant simplicity, enormous wit and dynamism, accompanied by the culturally eclectic folk themes of Adrian Lee's score.

Tim Supple delights in juxtaposing the sinister with the soft, the gory with the dreamlike. The forest that Little Red Cap must traverse is full of wolvestreesmen with grasping, outstretched, sexually-threatening arms. The Huntsman tears through the Wolf's brown fur right to his livid red insides to remove Grandmother and the little girl from his belly. Daft, literal Hans in the second story does his mother's bidding to "cast warm eyes on Gretel", his beloved, by cutting out sheep's eyes and throwing them (bloody veins and all) across the stage at her face. And the wicked Queen gobbles up the dripping lungs and liver of a bull, believing them to be Snow White's.

But humour and the irrepressible physical nature of the piece constantly move in to lighten the darkness. The warm intelligence of Duffy's writing and the spectacular ensemble performance of the company combine to make this another life-enhancing Grimm. So strong was the sheer magic of it, I was sad to leave the theatre.

David Copperfield at the Greenwich Theatre is another lavish production. Adapted and directed by Matthew Francis, it is a monumental feat of storytelling and characterisation as much as anything else. Lez Brotherston's wooden planked set on four levels has the characters moving between past and present, through different phas es of poor David's life. Strong characterisations, particularly Peter-Hugo Daly's dual roles of the murderous Murdstone and crooked Uriah Heep and Susan Porrett's Peggotty, plus the inspired device of sharing the narrative voice and the occasional dialogue between the Young David and David as an adult, make this a lively show. Sadly, the spirit of Scrooge is hanging over the Greenwich Theatre, which has just had its funding cut by the London Arts Board.

Treasure Island, adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett at the Lyric Hammersmith, is a less successful dramatisation of a great and wordy novel. There has to be more to Long John Silver and the boys than a lot of yo ho ho-ing and hobbling about on one foot. Unfortunately, this production doesn't deliver much else.

But hey, it's Christmas, and if it's a good old family panto you're after, it's always worth a shlep down Deptford Way to the London Bubble's show at the Albany Empire. This year Jonathan Petherbridge directs Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves with, yes you guessed it, pantomime camels. As usual, Simon Thomson steals the show as the widowed Dame.

It's hard to beat the Bubble's panto for playing the audience and letting good humour run riot. High culture it ain't, but you'll laugh till your belly hurts. I did.

* Peter Pan at the National Theatre is sold out for the current booking period. For performances from January to mid-April, ring the box office on 0171 928 2252 from January 5.

* More Grimm Tales can be seen at the Young Vic until January 31. Bookings on 0171 928 6363.

* Treasure Island runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until January 17. Bookings on 0181 741 2311.

* David Copperfield is showing at the Greenwich Theatre until January 24. Bookings on 0181 858 7755.

* Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is at the Albany Empire until January 3. Bookings on 0181 692 4446.

Reva Klein.

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