Seasonal morals

20th December 1996 at 00:00
With scarce a panto in sight, this season yields a clutch of moral tales swathed in restless dreams. The Unicorn Theatre reworks the story of a wooden puppet who becomes a boy, tells long-nosed lies but repents to love his maker. Greenwich Theatre celebrates a runaway boy who strives to free a slave. The Orange Tree offers a soldier who finds he can't buy friends with money.

The theme of a dangerous imagination haunts. "I want to go somewhere wild and different," says the Tinderbox princess at the Orange Tree.

The Polka Theatre charms with a girl who quits her dust bowl farmstead, pals up with a fearful Lion, brainless Scarecrow and heartless Tin Man to find happiness in her own backyard. "Some place where there isn't any trouble, far away....beyond the rainbow," says Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

This glorious recreation for over-sixes can't put a foot wrong, weaving a spell to match the original. Roman Stefanski's production takes the audience into its confidence from the first wisecrack, each line leaping into technicolour life.

Applause greets every evocative number: a Joplinesque, jitterbug spoof and tap dance worthy of pros. A monster swings open its washing-machine door to reveal the quaking Wiz crouched behind and you can hear a pin drop when Toto, the dog (yes, a real one) is taken away. He returns. It's Christmas.

Suki Turner's choreography aerates the action like a batch of light scones. David Broughton Davies's Lion careers endearingly. Sally Mates turns in gems as a tough Mother and ample Fairy with a Blanche du Bois whisper. The central jewel is Louise Bolton, imbuing Dorothy with a tremulously plucky voice (hommage to Judy Garland) and verve all her own.

Inside the Orange Tree's four-sided cellar, intimate as a kitchen, "square as a prison cell", a resourceful Tinderbox adapted for 6 to 11s (and rapt four-year-olds) works wonders with a wooden trunk, rope and step-ladder, scrap of velvet for a baby, and tart-fresh songs for pipes and squeeze boxes.

You see the joins in this Hans Andersen story of a dragon-slaying soldier tempted by riches. A hag bids him retrieve a wish box guarded by dogs. Cardboard keys lowered on a hoist are his ticket to Hades. The saucer-eyed dogs (tamed a mite too easily with a flick of their mistress's smelly apron) are conjured by cut-out slides projected along gallery walls.

Affluent Richmond is an apt setting for Tinseltown, "where the tills never stop ringing". Soldier Tom is fleeced by traders and taken for a ride by a gorgeously cringeing duo decked out in quilted regalia.

Ending up a pauper in Tinseltown, he still wins the princess. "All my parents do is shop and all I ever do is dream," she moans, ripping down the tree curtain "so a better story will start". I'm happy with this one.

In the Unicorn's musical Pinocchio, a foxy cat and effete tramp-fox left over from The Rocky Horror Show steal the limelight. Jo Castleton boasts a shimmering, teeth-gleaming cricket: Pinocchio's perky conscience. Her off-beam alertness would work well for the puppet with a pea-shooter nose, here rendered anodyne by a hint of Americanese. In David Collis's production, marionettes wear commedia del' arte masks and Venetian carnival costumes. A rousing finale has everyone cheering but in the incessant mayhem, theatrical danger is ducked. Too much knockabout knocks out the magic.

At Greenwich, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, adapted by director Matthew Francis (collaborating with South Carolina University students) reveals hard-won treasure.

Daniel Newman magnificently embodies Huck, throwing pastiche out the window. When he's funny - masquerading as a girl, conjuring up reckless yarns - it's true comedy.

Elsewhere, extended parody from a pair of dubious Shakespearean tramps and comic-strip Southern camp between feud'n' families detracts from the story. the Mississippi doesn't get much of a look in, what with to-ing and fro-ing of a busy set which gives "make-shift " new meaning.

The convoluted, three-hour show is best when it takes itself seriously. The stand of abolitionists braving slave owners slices the play like a rock fissure, highlighted by Huck's relationship with a gentle slave bowed by painful memories.

Choreographer Andrew George's hoe-down finale offers the release that propels the drama.

Hackney Empire's ornate masterpiece of an auditorium is the real set and the audience the ebullient cast in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, rendering pantomime characters redundant. It's the clown's fault for hotting up the children so effectively, eliciting a din of booms before the curtain rises.

The Goldilocks story is sandwiched inside Gertie Gemmell's circus with a line up of well-oiled performers. Charlie Cairoli does his collapsing chair, water-spurting bowler, vanishing gold fish and swazzle gags. A dance troupe of tiny jumping beans sparkles.

Lurve interest is supplied by a Buck Rogers lookalike with sardonic eyebrows and a Mario Lanza voice (Rory Campbell) who whips Goldilocks off to Starbucksville. Like a naughty class, the irrepressible audience winds up whooping and bopping anarchically, silent only for the plight of endearing outsize bears or when goaded (and tamed) by a dastardly Sean Canning.

For better or worse (bad taste jokes, a long strobe chase), this is popular variety. Hurtling through backslips, the Ben Karim quartet of human pyramids steals the show.

Norma Cohen

Richard Briers' Scrooge at the Lyric Hammersmith is, in the time-honoured tradition of many past Scrooges, best when he's feeling worst.

His few moments of anguish before transformation to goody-goodyness and after his low-level spleen are his most real and dramatically satisfying. Not that there is much in the way of seasonal schmaltz in Neil Bartlett's production of A Christmas Carol.

Far more generously flowing are the many tricks of physical theatre: the tick-tocks and chimes of the passing time are a leitmotif, the fire in the grate is an orange gloved actor who goes crackle crackle, a dressing gown hanging on the wall suddenly starts moving to become the ghost of Christmas present. The stark black set with windows and doors suspended in thin air sets off the largely monochrome costumes.

This is a largely post-modernist Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge unscrews the naked light bulb from his bare office to use in his equally bare home. But for all its starkness, bursts of ensemble performance and touches of absurdity (particularly from the luminous Marcello Magni as Fred) make this a highly watchable show.

Reva Klein

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