Arts: Theatre - A touch of magic

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The Independent Culture
THE EMERGENCE of the flame-coloured talking phoenix, that "fabulous bird of antiquity", followed moments later by a magic carpet lift-off, sets a high standard for theatrical values that is maintained throughout this entrancing production directed by Deborah Shaw and designed by Scott Ramsay.

For a young generation reared on Nintendo and Teletubbies, a shiny yellow egg that hatches into a golden-feathered talking bird and a magic wishing carpet that whisks you off on breathtaking adventures might seem alien concepts. However this remarkably honest adaptation by Shaw and Ramsay of E Nesbit's classic tale transfers surprisingly well to the late 20th- century stage.

If parts of the scene in the Phoenix Insurance Company Office or some of the sentiments expressed by cross, bossy cook (Mary-Ann Coburn) may go over the heads of the tinier members of the audience, there's plenty of that crucial element of child's play in funny characters such as grumpy Miss Biddle at the church bazaar, the dippy, hymn-singing vicar (who raises practically the biggest laugh of all), and the sweetshop-keeper in a scene enhanced by a delightful musical accompaniment. A cow makes an unexpected cameo appearance in the nursery, and there is an invasion of mewing Persian cats, invisible except for hundreds of pairs of glowing eyes.

The all-round cast, engaging and committed whether busily employed in character shifts or playing down their years, are never upstaged by the set or the magic, especially not David Caron's fruity-voiced phoenix or Philip Hazelby's cockney cat burglar.

The characters of the children, Anthea, Robert, Cyril and Jane, firmly rooted in Edwardian England in their pinafores, Eton collars and snobbish attitude to the servants, have a certain appeal. No one really wants them stranded on a tropical island or burned alive in the fire started by the mischievous phoenix - and of course they're not, escaping safely home from all their adventures to pretty Mother and hard-working Father, thanks once again to the "good old beautiful phoenix".

With a sparky soundtrack (music and lyrics by Neil Brand) that ranges from Bollywood to music-hall, this is just the show for a child's early encounter with theatre. Who could resist the magical carpet and the phoenix or, as that arrogant pushy pigeon, that orange-coloured cockatoo, would instantly declare with an air of wounded dignity, The Phoenix and the Carpet? The carpet certainly moved for me.

Until Saturday 15 Jan, 10.15am or 2.15pm, box office 01244 340392