All's Well That Ends Well, Swan, Stratford<br/>Beauty and the Beast, RST, Stratford<br/>Jason and the Argonauts BAC, London<br/> Cinderella: The Musical, Old Vic, Bristol

Beauties and beasts - and a morris dance
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The Independent Culture




Will she get her Prince Charming? This was the question of the week, quivering on the lips of audiences across the country, spreading like a seasonal epidemic. Now, I have to reveal that the answer wasn't always jolly, but please don't start booing and hissing. The imperfect romances cropping up this Christmas serve as anti-comedic relief, striking some startlingly sour notes amongst all the traditional, sweetly jingling, happy-ever-after fairy tales. The RSC is certainly offering two boldly contrasting folk stories, and Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well is also intriguing because it's so rarely tackled.

What a wintry vision of love this is: a variant of the rags-to-riches formula that ends with the ethics of the great and the supposedly good seeming decidedly shabby. Helena is a servant, a gentlewoman, who dares to adore her mistress's son, the young count Bertram. Pursuing her dream, Helena follows him to the ailing King's court and, because she saves his Majesty with a miraculous cure, her wish to choose a husband is granted. She seems to be the aspiring spirit of the Renaissance, an emblem of more power to the people and a proto-feminist icon. But Bertram is appalled by their thus-arranged marriage and is, what's more, far from charming. A scornful youth, he gives Helena the slip and is only brought to heel by a bed trick - sleeping with his bride quite unwittingly. Helena's repeated mantra, "All's well that ends well", is evidently ironic. People talk of redemptive grace, but this world seems bleakly pragmatic, as rotters get a second lease of life without voicing repentance and our virtuous heroine resorts to deceitful devices.

Greg Doran's absorbing production looks beautiful and sombre. The costumes are puritanical in tone, dove grey and black, with some cavalier flourishes. Some might accuse Doran of softening up this play and they may wish for more sharply ambiguous characters and focused moral conflicts. Jamie Glover's bland performance as Bertram is certainly a disappointment, completely failing to explore his close male friendship with the treacherous braggart, Parolles. Judi Dench makes the Countess a poignantly tender surrogate mother, but somewhat underplays her flashes of harshness. Gary Waldhorn, as the King, doesn't quite rise to crushing wrath either, but ultimately their humane warmth contrasts bleakly with the next generation's egocentricity. Guy Henry's gangly Parolles, rather than a dreadful fop, is endearingly vulnerable and Helena's dogged devotion, as played by Claudie Blakley, is disturbingly thoughtless. Doran achieves a delicate balance of cynicism and hope in the final reunion. Worth catching.

There's more cause for rejoicing at the close of Beauty and the Beast, the company's family show. The scary monster transmogrifies into an apparently flawless handsome prince, having been humanised by the power of Beauty's love. Writer-director Laurence Boswell (substantially reworking his previous Young Vic production) gets off to a splendid start. Stylishly incorporating elements of commedia dell'arte, Beauty's brothers and sisters clown around in all-white breeches and waistcoats and pretty corseted frocks. Their mercantile father's townhouse is a canvas chamber that simply whisks away when his ships are lost at sea. A brown Lycra "field" of mud slides in when the family has to move to a country farm and the sludge takes on a comic life of its own, hugging the new arrivals' legs. The pace is lively and Boswell's ensemble engagingly narrate the story as they go. It's also less sugary than the Disney stage version and the imagination is encouraged far more.

This adaptation isn't afraid to symbolically deal with sex and death either, as Aoife McMahon's self-assured Beauty is carried off by the Beast's black steeds carrying skull masks and banging staves. Mick Sands' music is electrifying too, with barnstorming folk songs giving way to haunting exotic ululations. That said, Jeremy Herbert's set designs get less classy and more cluttered, and the plot drifts in the second half.

The Beast is a rich hybrid, with a reptilian head pierced with thorns, and his feral howls can sound heart-wrenchingly like sobbing, but Adam Levy isn't an actor with emotional depth and his hunched, scampering Beast sometimes looks embarrassingly like a cross between Sher's Richard III and the Phantom of the Opera. Still, the kids seemed to love him.

The love interest in Jason and the Argonauts isn't too reassuring. Wounded by Eros, Medea uses her magic powers to help Jason steal the golden fleece from under her royal father's nose. Jason proposes and they sail away, but then it all turns nasty. In the last leg of Carl Heap's production (co-written with Tom Morris), Medea cozens and stabs her own brother as he tries to halt the Argo. In another curious little scene, Circe turns surgeon and removes the love-shafts from the sleeping couple's hearts. Medea's future as a wife and mother is also, of course, a horror story.

Though this dramatisation spares us that episode, this isn't BAC's Yuletide fare at its best. The whole thing gets off to a rather tiresome and bemusing start with a bout of morris dancing at an English village fête where Tom Espiner's Jason suddenly bangs his head and wakes up in Ancient Greece. Though supposedly linking our folk roots with Hellenic sagas, this set-up is really just roughly tacked-on. Too often the dialogue is bland and the acting crassly exaggerated. The composer Jon Boden also throws in some peculiarly dull English folk songs and shanties.

Nonetheless, elsewhere this production is inspired by the muse of playful inventiveness, and there's a sense of adventure about staging an epic on a shoestring budget. The Argo is merrily cobbled together using upturned pub tables, with step ladders for towering masts. Jason and his crew pile on board like a human pyramid. The aerial antics are a hoot as well. Hannah Ringham's dowdy Hera wafts down from Olympus in a hilariously ungainly fashion, dangling from a rope, hands flapping desperately as she comes into land on an elusive pedestal. Gemma Brockis's truculent Eros fires off passion-inducing shuttlecocks, and the Harpies are stupendously foul. Screeching in dirty, hooded waterproofs, they swoop from the rafters like winged monkeys, poo wantonly on a banquet, and fight the Argonauts in mid-air. Exhilarating.

Still, Cinderella: The Musical is more consistently enjoyable fun. Admittedly, Rodgers and Hammerstein hadn't exactly hit their stride when they collaborated on this 1943 Broadway show. Most of the lyrics are a bit lame and not many of the tunes leap out, but Tim Sheader's production brings out a lovely comic warmth and designer Laura Hopkins makes it look wonderfully, weirdly chic. Cinderella's kitchen is faded yet fantastical, with its chintz wallpaper strangely magnified. Meanwhile, the Prince's landscape gardener is clearly a surrealist, creating walks scattered with Roman columns under tangerine skies. The pumpkin also turns into a coach in a spectacular fashion, with a flurry of snow appearing to form instantaneously into a frosted rococo carriage with slow-galloping carousel horses.

Sophie Bold's sparky Cinderella is refreshingly natural. Her prince (Simon Thomas) manages to be impossibly handsome without being an absolute bore; her ugly sisters (Sirine Saba and Daniele Coombe) are a terrific comic duo, sulking with gusto; and her fairy godmother (Helen Hobson) has a no-nonsense exterior concealing fab secret powers. Nice work.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'All's Well That Ends Well': Swan, Stratford (0870 609 1110), to 7 Feb, then Gielgud, London W1 (0870 890 1105), 18 Feb to 24 April; 'Beauty and the Beast': RST, Stratford (0870 609 1110), to 21 Feb; 'Jason and the Argonauts': BAC, London SW11 (020 7223 2223), to 17 Jan; 'Cinderella: The Musical': Old Vic, Bristol (0117 987 7877), to 24 Jan

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