And the nose has it...

Self-help Cinderella, musical Christmas Carol or mischievous Pinocchio? Paul Taylor weighs up the Christmas shows around the UK
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As a child, did you ever pretend to like a show in order to avoid hurting your parents' feelings? And did this well-meaning deception leave you experiencing a queasy mix of conscious virtue laced with the sense that you had betrayed both yourself and them? Later, of course, as a teenager, you come to realise that hypocrisy can be benign. Pretending to like them is often the only way of starting to appreciate some of the best features of life. Whisky, say, or the late quartets of Beethoven are, in the nature of things, an acquired taste. But a child who pretended too often and on principle is a child who could be sold a pig in a poke.

As a child, did you ever pretend to like a show in order to avoid hurting your parents' feelings? And did this well-meaning deception leave you experiencing a queasy mix of conscious virtue laced with the sense that you had betrayed both yourself and them? Later, of course, as a teenager, you come to realise that hypocrisy can be benign. Pretending to like them is often the only way of starting to appreciate some of the best features of life. Whisky, say, or the late quartets of Beethoven are, in the nature of things, an acquired taste. But a child who pretended too often and on principle is a child who could be sold a pig in a poke.

These thoughts were prompted, the other night, by the premiere of Cinderella: The Ash Girl, on the main stage of the Birmingham Rep. It's one of the most high-profile of this year's crop of Christmas shows and it's conceived by very distinguished talents. The top playwright, Timberlake ( Our Country's Good) Wertenbaker is responsible for the strenuously revisionist script and the production is by the up-and-coming Lucy Bailey, who won awards and plaudits for her recent, ingeniously powerful stage version, at this address, of the steamy Tennessee Williams movie, Baby Doll.

The result, though, is an evening that made me want to rush up to the children filing out and whisper, "What did you really think? You know, you don't have to like it." You sensed in the auditorium a thwarted willingness to connect with a show that was too busy being preachy and politically correct ever to satisfy that simple desire. A Christmas entertainment that is genuinely thought-provoking is what everyone wants: children and parents. This show, though, is an object lesson in how not to go about it.

Cinderella: The Ash Girl makes the fatal error of supposing these classic fairy tales can retain their educative power if you spell everything out, as in some gruesome self-help manual, and throw in every subsidiary mythic element you can think of. It's as though its makers think that Sophocles' Oedipus Rex would be enhanced by the addition of Freudian editorials on the Oedipus complex and by the introduction of Electra and her complementary problems. After a couple of minutes, you are heavily into eating disorders, body image and force feeding. The Sisters are, natch, beautiful. Everyone is beautiful, deep down. Oh, and nothing is anybody's fault. "I didn't make the world," explains the stepmother in typically priggish justification of her actions.

Cinderella is dogged by a death-wish alter ego, dressed in black. She also has an Owl who psychoanalyses her: "Could it be that you don't want to go to the ball?" The ball, incidentally, is thrown by a family of émigré eastern royalty, there to illustrate the rights and responsibilities of refugees. Even the most spectacular moments, as when Cinderella's ballgown is spun from the belly of a giant spider and a platoon of his miniature brethren creepily dangle their way over the audience, are spoiled by the endemic, raging worthiness: at that point, by the Fairy Godmother treating us to the tale of Arachne and her tangled fate.

The difference between The Ash Girl and Uncle Ebenezer, Phil Willmott's warmly engaging musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol at BAC, is the difference between a show with its heart all over the shop and a show with its heart firmly in the right place. With the audience sitting on four sides of the action in an evocative surround of snowy, cobwebby windows, Uncle Ebenezer is more immediate and involving, too. Dickens' story can sometimes be over-milked for sickly sentiment, as in a recent sugary RSC adaptation. But Wilmott gives its depiction of the ill-treated poor dramatic bite with the framing device of making Scrooge's nephew a journalist with a social conscience who comes to realise, in the course of the proceedings, that the most effective way of getting his crusading points across is through this very tale.

Encompassing everything from street-party knees-up to soaring, heartfelt carols, a quirky, populous cast sing and dance up a storm. The puppet ghosts are properly terrifying and there are scenes of considerable theatrical power, as when at a flashback reception, the men and women, facing each other diagonally, perform an animated question-and-response version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", a display that is interrupted by the young Scrooge. Already going to the bad, he bounds in with a bag of money and sings, clangingly, "Five pounds". It's a party-pooping moment filled with pathos and foreboding, and watched in pained silence by his older self (the characterful William Maxwell).

The "Christmas message" can get laid on a bit thick in children's shows. A good antidote, for bright kids of 10 upwards, would be to give them a taste of the (officially adult) The Messiah, the National Theatre of Brent's lovably ludicrous and accident-prone account of the events up to and including the Nativity. Grand, cuff-tugging luvvie, Desmond Olivier Dingle (Patrick Barlow) and his hapless, wig-wearing sidekick Raymond Box (John Ramm) treat us to such little-known moments in the story as when the Angel appears to Joseph and tells him that Mary is going to have a baby planted in her by God. "So when's it due?" asks Joseph. "Around Christmas. That all right with you?" is the reply. "It's just that I was thinkin' of goin' away," says history's number one cuckold.

"Come with me on the fitted carpet of your imagination," exhorts Raymond at the start of the second half. In its own cock-up-ridden, sophisticatedly innocent and finally quite touching way, The Messiah makes theatre a truly participatory and collaborative experience. And that's the test for Christmas shows aimed specifically at children, too. Highly recommended on those grounds are the Pinocchio directed by Marcello Magni with a script by Lee ( Billy Elliot) Hall at the Lyric, Hammersmith and John Doyle's lovely, in-the-round production of Beauty and the Beast at the Watermill, Newbury. In contrast to The Ash Girl, both let you into the process of their creation and don't ram their precepts down your throat.

Pinocchio achieves mischievous, endearing effects with clever switches of scale - our naughty, nasally challenged hero alternately played by an adorable, spindly-legged puppet and by the tall, equally adorable, perky Eric Mallett. Beauty and the Beast demonstrates how a whole world of the imagination can be unlocked on a tiny stage, provided you have a talented, versatile company who can double as the band. So, for example, the father's horse, who is amusingly called Dinah like the cat in Alice in Wonderland, is a double bass with a mane and three instrumentalists able to make her "speak".

Parents who feel none of these shows gives their children an egregious enough villain to hiss at might like to take them, instead, to The Accused, an unwitting panto of sorts written by and starring Jeffrey Archer at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. There, your offspring will not only get the chance to boo their heads off, but also to vote him guilty of murder. The run ends on 20 January: book early, folks, to avoid disappointment.

* ' Cinderella: The Ash Girl', 0121-236 4455; 'Uncle Ebenezer', 020-7223 2223; 'Messiah', 020-7610 4224; 'Pinocchio', 020-8741 2311; 'Beauty and the Beast', 01635 46044; 'The Accused', 020-7930 8800

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