Theatre: Angela Carter would have adored it

Cinderella Lyric, W6 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Stratford RST Killing Rasputin Bridewell, EC4
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The Independent Culture
A frequent criticism of critics is that they don't pay enough attention to the reactions of the rest of the audience. So let me say straight off that the first-night audience for Cinderella at Hammersmith - a good mix of adults and children - gave one of the best audience performances of the year. They hissed, they booed, they laughed, they cheered, they ooohed, they aaahed, they tut-tutted and they shushed. They heckled wittily and spontaneously. They applauded wildly and cheered loudly. None of this came over as the dreary, mechanical enthusiasm of first-night friends and relatives. It was just a lot of fun.

I had my worries about Cinderella. It's not as if we haven't already heard quite a lot about this fairy-tale's characters. As you probably know, Cinderella is the story of how a dozen very, very, very talented people found themselves in the same rehearsal room in west London. Inspired by two pieces of writing by the late novelist Angela Carter, a prose version of Cinderella and an essay titled "In Pantoland", they employ a stack of newspapers, puppet mice, cut-outs, songs, a laundry basket, improvisation techniques, illusions and trap-doors, to create the sort of magical night out that Angela Carter would have enjoyed.

To name names, the Lyric's Neil Bartlett had teamed up with Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson from Improbable Theatre - the acclaimed group who did Shockheaded Peter and Life Game - and the magician Paul Kieve, who did The Invisible Man in the West End. Together they came up with children's theatre that echoes Frank Matcham's proscenium interior for the Lyric. Backdrops fly in and out, the cast carry two-dimensional furniture around - grandfather clock, piano, chairs and so on. There are lovely jokes with perspective. It's a comic type of nostalgia that's free of any dismal post-modern knowingness.

From the outset, the cast tell us they are making it up ("we're going to get things wrong and we don't care"). This allows them to throw each other challenges. As Buttons, Martin Freeman perfectly captures the mix of panicky hesitancy and boulevard nonchalance. Angela Clerkin is instantly engaging, giving Cinderella an attractive Estuary directness ("I'd quite like the shoes to be made of glass") without making her banally modern. And the Ugly Sisters, Jonathan Coyne and Andy Smart, in wigs and fluffy slippers, do traditional panto routines without descending to topical gags or TV references. The mice are expertly choreographed, going into a number about eating cheese in the moonlight which includes tap routines and the formation of a mouse pyramid.

Paul Kieve's illusions close Act One with Cinderella's wonderful transformation into her ball gown and on to a horse and carriage. Elsewhere, key moments in the story are also given some space. This isn't one of those pantos that undercuts every emotion like a nervous tic. Cinderella becomes fresh, surprising and - from time to time - a bit moving. Too moving, perhaps: when Cinderella marries the Prince (Richard Katz) the auditorium fills with pathos. "We love you, Buttons!" shouts out someone from the audience. Perhaps the more discredited the hereditary principle becomes and the more we know about princes, the more Cinderella turns out to be a fairy tale with an unhappy ending. The girl has gone off with the wrong guy.

Everyone who has read CS Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remembers the bit where Lucy steps into a large wardrobe and emerges the other side in the land of Narnia. How this moment occurs, or fails to occur, in Adrian Noble's colourful, extravagant and unimaginative Christmas production for the RSC tells us most of what we need to know.

In the book, Lucy steps in among the coats, finds there a second row of coats, stretches her arms out so as not to bump into the back wall, and finds that it's no longer fur that's brushing against her face but the branches of trees. Snow crunches under her feet and snowflakes fall through the air.

In Noble's production, Rebecca Clarke's Lucy walks into the wardrobe that stands in the centre of the stage and disappears. The wardrobe turns 180 degrees. As it does so, the frosty settings of Anthony Ward's designs for Narnia fly in and Rebecca Clarke steps out of the wardrobe. This is the biggest moment in the book, the equivalent of the Darling children flying out of the bedroom window in Peter Pan or Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. At Stratford, we don't see the furs or the branches brushing against Lucy's face or her hands outstretched or her looking back and seeing that the wardrobe door is still open. We don't see anything from Lucy's point of view. We watch the wardrobe instead. No wonder the moment feels wooden.

A sure sign that Noble's production flattens out the other-worldiness of Lewis's book is that the Pevensie children's journey from war-time London to the countryside, a detail treated by Lewis in a single perfunctory sentence, receives more elaborate treatment - with designs for St Paul's Cathedral, then Paddington Station - than Lucy's journey through the wardrobe.

A great deal of work has gone into the RSC's Christmas production - its first in Stratford for 30 years - and most of it took place in the costume department. No expense has been spared in giving us leopards, squirrels, centaurs, wolves, reindeer and so on. At this prosaic level, Noble's production is enjoyable enough: an upmarket panto with a Christian slant. But the Technicolor pageantry only papers over the cracks left by holes in the imagination. The group scenes are always busy while never achieving a dynamic and focus. Estelle Kohler is excellent as the imperiously wicked White Witch, with a furry robe like an avalanche of snow. And Patrice Naiambana is impressive too, as the saintly Aslan, the lion who lays down his life for others. But there's some shockingly weak mime in this show. With this sort of budget, there must be someone who can teach the cast how to pretend to run up a staircase or walk while standing on the same spot.

The musical Killing Rasputin, with music by James McConnel and lyrics by Kit Hesketh-Hervey, builds up to that famous night. On 16 December 1916, the wealthy Oxford graduate and homosexual, Prince Felix Yusupov, gave Rasputin, the "mad monk" from Siberia, poisoned Madeira to drink and gateau filled with cyanide to eat and then had to shoot him. Directed by Ian Brown, Killing Rasputin is a crammed affair that has to cover big events, diverse themes and complex personalities. The first act has 18 numbers; the second act 15. At no point did the hectic production come up with a scene or number that demonstrated why this sprawling, multifarious subject might work as a musical. Like the Romanovs, I suppose, it lacked a governing principle.

'Cinderella': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311) to 9 January; 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe': Stratford RST (01789 295 623) in rep to 27 February; 'Killing Rasputin': Bridewell, EC4 (0171 936 3456), to 16 January.