Modern twists to traditional tales

19th December 1997 at 00:00
The return of Charles Way's The Sleeping Beauty at the Manchester Library Theatre (to January 17; tickets: 0161 236 7110) confirms its place among the finest modern versions of traditional tales.

Princess Briar Rose is a forest foundling who grows up a fractious child, unaware of the threat posed by a spindle, chafing at her father's insistence that she stay within the castle walls. She meets and teases young Owain, an apparently hopeless incompetent rejected by his family. As she passes into her teens, Briar Rose develops a fondness for him which Owain is too callow to match. Much of the second act, ostensibly about his adventures to find her sleeping in the tangled forest, represents his emotional growth. In the final, nail-biting countdown, Owain has 10 seconds to wake Briar Rose. For nine he merely shakes her, before realising the need to engage his feelings and kiss her into consciousness.

The sister witches are rivals. Bright witch Branwen is weaker than her dark sister, Modron, who is a female version of Iago, the villain of Othello; her excuse for evil, that she feels rejected, eventually evaporates merely into, "I am I and you are you". Branwen has her own problem, finding the right spell to turn her creation Gryff from half to full Dragon. Be yourself, rejoice in your identity and reach your full potential; such are the issues raised in this fast-moving, comic and affecting play - qualities director Roger Haines and his cast exploit well on Judith Croft's colourful set.

Mike Kenny's Scheherezade (NTC tour to January 31; details: 01665 602586) - with its opening call for a story - receives suitably alert, fast-paced acting from Paul Harman's five-strong company. Later stories involve a variety of narrative methods; Schehere-zade's sister and father become involved, and in one cute scene, when Scheherezade's narrative powers are strained, inspiration comes from Jim Kitson's comically threatening Executioner miming a tale behind the Sultan's back for the others to interpret, and misinterpret, as best they can.

The Executioner's axe remains on the giant bed which covers much of the stage throughout as a bloody reminder of how vital - literally - these stories are, while the axe man himself turns out to be an ex-storyteller whose tongue has been ripped out. When imagination dies, bloodiness begins. Nigel Collins's facial mobility as the Vizier adds greatly to the comedy, and Angela Mounsey's Scheherezade makes a compelling case for the Sultan (a dangerously authoritative David Tarkenter) to prefer life to death.

Stuart Paterson's fine Beauty and the Beast is given a rousing revival for Northern Stage by directordesigner Neil Murray and a seasoned Tyneside cast at Newcastle Playhouse (to January 17; 0191 230 5151). Mood switches are perfectly caught, in particular by Richard Clews's sympathetic semi-villain Dunt, while the comic ugly sisters Hazel and Hannah (Charlie Hardwick and Philippa Wilson) gamely endure deserved pratfalls into a manure-filled wheelbarrow and screamed audience insults.

Paterson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's George's Marvellous Medicine is rumbustiously revived at Chester Gateway (to January 10; 01244 340392), though Cressida Falcon's monstrous Grandma, placed in a remote corner of the stage, seems vocally muffled. But there's a grand chaos of size-changing animals to cheer the action along. A shorter dose of Dahl's tale comes from Norwich Puppet Theatre, camped in Leeds over Christmas with 40 minutes of puppet leaping, reversing, extending and diminishing (West Yorkshire Playhouses Courtyard Theatre to January 10; 0113 213 7700).

Compared with Way, Kermy and Paterson, David Wood's The Gingerbread Man seems like mid-Seventies innocence. Though the action is confined to a kitchen dresser, it still employs the idea of a journey and the value of co-operation and friendliness. This is done through old Tea Bag, the grumpy female who comes out as a friendly bundle of tea leaves when she responds to offers of friendship. Dominic Barber's production for Wellingborough's enterprising Castle Theatre (to December 27; 01933 270007) is attractively energetic. It's just a shame there's a wearily lengthy singalong at the end; if only someone would clear away such tedious pantomime clutter.

Timothy Ramsden

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