Arts: Theatre: Carried by the wind

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CYNICAL OLD theatre critics claim that there is one big advantage to the festive season: with so many children in the audience, the queue for the bar is greatly reduced. There's another huge compensation - the annual Young Vic Christmas show, which is reliably not just the best in that particularly category, but great theatre on any reckoning.

This year, they stole a march on themselves: artistic director Tim Supple and the creative team that gave us the two gleefully gory, and uncensored Grimm Tales productions, moonlighted at the National via their superb staging of Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which opened in October. With Supple currently in New York, treating the Big Apple to its first taste of his Grimm, responsibility for the home front has fallen to Dominic Cooke, who comes up trumps with an exotic and exhilarating Arabian Nights, using his own wily adaptation.

Played in the round on a central, sand-covered disc, inflected with the crash and wail of beguilingly bizarre musical instruments, and with ravishing costumes, it's a production that keeps aesthetic faith with the excellent traditions of this intimate house. The framework of the piece is the classic plight of Scheherezade (or Shahrazad, as she's dubbed here), striving to postpone her execution night after night by spinning stories to her emotionally blocked husband, the King, who is ultimately rehumanised by them. Her yarns are staged with a fluently vivid inventiveness and charged simplicity of means. For example, the chorus of thieves in the Ali Baba story thunder in on invisible horses and, crowding together in their black capes, congeal into the forbidding rocky cave. At the cry of "open sesame", they whip their capes open to reveal brilliant gold linings and, immersed in Paul Anderson's swimming glitter-ball light, sway round the hero as the intoxicating treasure.

The crowds of children at the press night clamoured with delight at a story centring on a fatal fart (the man's family gusted to the edge of the audience and just began to roll back when he got a second wind), and at the spectacle of an actress in the role of a merchant who, with elating realism, copiously pees over the stage. The hanging and quartering of a body in one tale also went down a treat. Simultaneously knockabout and full of breathtaking poetic nuance, the production gives us stories where the narrator manipulates a puppet version of his younger self (as with Sinbad, who is borne aloft on a bird collectively evoked by the chorus) and where the protagonist comically splits in two (as in the story of the wife who wouldn't eat) when he's transformed into a little mutt by his undercover sorceress wife.

You could quibble that the Arabian Nights is an odd choice for this year when Haroun, which is heavily indebted to them and also focuses on the healing power of stories, is playing at the National. But the imagination of Cooke's productions is justification in itself, as it beautifully points up (with delicate juxtapositions and tableaux) the moral connection between the inner narrative and the outer story of Sophie Okonedo's delightful Shahrazad and Chu Omabala's imposing young king. The Young Vic has again pulled off a Christmas cracker.