I feel I should begin with an unseasonal warning: I am not the Spirit of Christmas incarnate. Obviously, I'd love to be ludicrously generous throughout the silly season - oh yes I would - however, anyone reading this column doubtless wants to know if the upmarket, much-puffed Aladdin at the Old Vic is actually any good. And, hell, no it isn't. Sean Mathias's staging should be superb, with Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey and the Olivier-winning Roger Allam as Abbanazar.
Moreover, everyone who loves the Vic is willing this production to save the day after Kevin Spacey's lame opening production, Cloaca. But just yelling "Abracadabra" won't turn this absolute turkey into a golden goose.
To his credit, Allam is amusingly wry as the evil wizard, striking melodramatic postures with an ironically cocked eyebrow, and turning his dastardly laughter on and off like a tap. Sam Kelly is an endearingly dotty Emperor, and McKellen does look splendidly OTT, swanning around in a frock which almost engulfs him in ruffles, and in a white sateen jumpsuit that reveals Twankey has the figure of an outsized Christmas stocking.
The fundamental problem is the dire script by Bille Brown which drags down the whole cast as they plough through desperately feeble puns like, "You must have heard my walkman" ... "What man are you walking with?" Pass the laughing gas, someone. The rude jokes about Twankey seem peculiarly distasteful, and Brown completely fails to find the right mix of traditional and contemporary. He slings in odd rusty archaisms while Joe McFadden's Aladdin skips round Old Peking dressed like a naff Carnaby Street punk.
John Napier's set boasts a fantastically sinister cave that unfolds like a giant vampire bat, but the stagehand visibly yanking at a hitched string ruined the magic. Beyond this, Mathias's star players look as if they've barely had a technical rehearsal. Though playing the Dame has long been McKellen's dream, in practice he's tense behind the lashings of rouge. His comic timing is dandy on all the double entendres and he has that wonderful clown-like face, yet he brings almost no physical comedy to the role. He ought to be having far more of a ball during his gruff cabaret number and mock-balletic routine. Maureen Lipman is scarcely trying as his sidekick Dim Sum and, though it may improve with time, all the slapstick was abysmal at the show I attended. McFadden even accidentally bumped into Allam in what was meant to be a "Behind You" sequence, and the lamp-juggling scene looked as if it was just being done in slow motion while everyone waited for Mathias to be released from some hideous spell that has rendered him completely useless. My advice? Hawk your ticket and cut along to the Hackney Empire instead, where Clive Rowe's roly-poly Twankey is a joy to behold.
I regret to say The Chimes isn't any great shakes either, but it is a literary curiosity and mildly enjoyable because Gareth Machin's intimate staging, on a shoestring budget, has its heart in the right place. This Yuletide tale by Dickens was once more popular than A Christmas Carol and it tells the story of a simple fellow, Toby Veck, who has a happy time with his loving daughter and cares for poor folks on New Year's Eve. But their innate goodness is undermined by the rich and powerful: Alderman Cute, far from living up to his name, is obsessed with crushing the lower orders. Veck is cruelly harangued as a ne'er-do-well, veers into depression, and sees his loved ones spiral down into lives of crime, gin, consumption, prostitution and suicide.
The final happy twist is, frankly, spurious and the tale itself is sentimental, didactic and crudely caricatured. But Dickens' damning of injustices remains palpably trenchant. John Kane is very endearing as Veck - like some nervous, bumbling ancestor of Richard Briers - and Machin's ensemble are pleasantly resourceful, playing multiple characters and providing the musical accompaniment, on squeeze box, chime bells, woodwind and strings.
In Kwame Kwei-Armah's new play, Fix Up, Kiki is an ageing Rasta who passionately believes his black brothers and sisters should learn about their race history by reading. He runs a bookshop in Tottenham devoted to this cause and, though facing eviction, he keeps stocking his shelves to the rafters and lending out volumes for free.
He's also a father-figure to a slightly retarded ex-junkie called Carl and Kwesi, who is more sassy and borrows Kiki's spare room for meetings with his militant buddies who sound suspiciously like a terrorist cell. Then Alice, a young middle-class woman of mixed race, starts eagerly befriending Kiki, acting suspiciously, and sparking off rivalries.
Kwei-Armah's set-up, with a bunch of characters popping in and out of a shop, is essentially the same as his previous caff play, Elmina's Kitchen. His plot becomes slightly creaky - with a mystery-thriller element centring around two locked doors - and the climax feels forced. The revelation that Kiki is trying to forget his personal history comes as no surprise. However, the bigger issue that Kwei-Armah explores - namely, the bonds and tensions between black people of different ages, classes, sexes and ancestral roots - moves beyond the merely schematic. He has a terrific ear for chat and street lingo and his characters are warm, complex and often highly amusing.
Everyone in Angus Jackson's cast is excellent, too. In a winningly understated performance, Jeffery Kissoon's Kiki is thoroughly lived-in, shambling, lovable and surly. Claire Benedict is droll as his laid-back but jealous friend, Norma, Mo Sesay is charmingly gawky as Carl, and Nina Sosanya plays Alice with girlish sweetness and a dangerous edge. Worth catching.
'Aladdin': Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 0606628), to 22 January; 'Chimes': Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (020 7620 3494), to Saturday; 'Fix Up': NT Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 23 MarchReuse content