Timothy Ramsden visits Christmas shows in the regions.
A good story well told makes the best children's theatre and the best stories show a young person's emerging sense of identity as they grope towards satisfying relationships with the world around.
So Charles Way's The Sleeping Beauty (Cardiff Sherman to January 7 01222 230451), lightly re-located to Wales, sees the intolerant Princess Briar Rose pass in her big sleep the hundred years' gap between childhood and maturity. And the incompetent Prince Owain gains in capability as necessity and the help of friends increase his self-esteem. Tough stuff? No, because the momentous issues click with young audiences who recognise the leap when Owain refuses to leave his new friend, Gryff, in the megalegs Spider King's literal clutches and because the fast pace action of Jamie Garven's production races over the discs and stairways of Jane Linz Roberts' set often heightened by the complex score (musical director Matthew Bailey) used filmically to counterpoint stage events. No doubting either the primal struggle between incompetent good fairy Branwen and her remorseless sister Modron, up to the final clock-busting seconds when the awakening kiss is no sentimental mush but a final symbol of emotional maturity.
A similar pattern of learning at Leicester Haymarket where beside Paul Kerryson's triumph of style over material in Calamity Jane (to January 28) Quicksilver Theatre mount an hour-long studio show for three to fives by directors Carey English and Guy Holland. Magic Mirrors (to January 7 0116 253 9797, then tour) shows how young Bo learns to blow her nose (a tissue for atishoo). Gently told - no blackouts, plenty of smiling talk direct to the audience - this story occurs in those moments when mother's busy cooking and the child mind wanders free into a mirror world of amiable giants, animals and a princess. Through friendships formed here, Bo returns with a new awareness of her ability to cope with life. It is a play about growth - colourful, quietly amusing and continually inventive.
It's the lack of such inner development or a resolution of the Soldier Hero's moral complexity that limits Peter Whelan's The Tinder Box (North Staffordshire New Victoria Theatre January 10-14, 23-28, 01782 717962). That and some plodding expositions. Yet the ballad flavour rhymes and some fine musical underscoring still create plenty of theatre poetry, enhanced by Peter Cheeseman's colourful, spare and epic staging. The three guardians of copper, silver and gold range from a loveable furry dog, through a panto animal without a back end (a tricycle substitution) to a huge illuminated mask lowered from the heights.
Comedy and thrills have long been linked to Christmas, but theatre based only on pastiche or hard-to-sustain parody of old genres soon looses its superficial gloss to reveal the lack such deeper structures as Way's Wheelan's and Quicksilver supply. Eastern Angles annually adapt a notable detective to their region. Julian Harries' Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (Ipswich Sir John Mills Theatre to January 7 0473 211498) had its matinee school audience rolling in the aisles but in the sober light of evening an initially promising concept eventually crumbles into a succession of gags as plot and credibility take a tumble.
As do the characters in Charley's Aunt (Manchester Royal Exchange to January 21 061 833 9833), thanks to the acrobatic direction of ex-People Show Person Emile Wolk. Sliding, bounding, springing, somersaulting - there's no end to the frenetic action, led by Michael Sheen's athletic Fancourt Babberly, daintily decked out in black crepe as the eponymous Donna. A fine cast offer the precision and exaggeration of manner necessary while make-up and costume help recreate the true feel of Victorian panto.
But Charley's Aunt is not pantomime, it's farce and the characters have the stuffing knocked out of them by the manic search for one-off gags. The stage is full of delirious invention and over-egged puddings in equal measure.
At least Mike Snelgrove's Max and the Missing Melody Mystery (Bracknell Wilde to January 7 0344 484123) takes on the computer age. The title is a trick, Melody being Max's missing sister, sucked into Stonehenge during a school trip. Max and his teacher pursue Melody's abductors in a combat of good and evil. Max and his computer triumph but the script is thin, the lyrics execrable.
Dave Simpson's Perfect Strangers (Bristol New Vic 0117 9877877) in which the paths and fortunes of a businessman and homeless woman cross when she becomes his housekeeper could be a neat Christmas heart warmer in modern Dickens fashion; alas for the script - a severe case of terminal sit com.