Awaking Beauty, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough; Great Expectations, Library Theatre, Manchester

Ayckbourn puts lust into his anti-fairy tale
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The princess gets her prince and the witch gets her pig, so you could say that all ends well in Sir Alan Ayckbourn's 70-second piece for theatre, Awaking Beauty. But in this slight comedy, a musical created with Denis King, and "filled with lust, laughter and just a little love", according to Ayckbourn, what begins as a quirky take on the Sleeping Beauty myth, with more than a little sexual innuendo, becomes an unsatisfactory social satire intended for an adult audience.

After jumping into bed with Aurora, the Prince wakes to find himself with the witch Carabosse. But bewitched into adoring her, the Prince is unable to love her as she desires, so Carabosse goes off to the city to be transformed into an alluring woman. But not before she's taken advice from the Sorceress (a splendid pantomime dame turn from Matthew White). The Princes – Aurora having taken her husband's name – settle down in the suburbs, have triplets, and struggle to exist in the real world. Prince stacks shelves and Mrs Prince is visited by Carabosse who, pretending to be a marketing executive, offers her a rosy red apple to bite ...

This allusion to the plot of Snow White is only one of several stories referenced in passing. My Fair Lady gets a look-in too, when, after her transformation from hag to covergirl, Carabosse is given elocution exercises to sing. Stephen Sondheim also lurks in the twists and turns of this anti-fairy tale. Anna Francolini's Carabosse, Verity Quade's cosmetic surgeon and Ben Fox's snorting Pigcutter stand out in an admirable 10-strong ensemble.

There are too many tangled strands, as if Ayckbourn's narrative thread had become snagged and diverted by the overgrown branches through which the Prince has to cut his way to the palace. Yet Ayckbourn, who also directs, relies on old-fashioned theatre values allowing his craftsmanship to stand out in a genre where money and technology rule.

He may be standing down as artistic director of the theatre in January (he's 70 next spring) but his successor Chris Monks will surely want more from the pen of this most fluent of writers. He may produce something more remarkable than Awaking Beauty and less like candyfloss spiked with chilli.

It's a striking idea to have Pip launch his own story in Great Expectations by hammering a huge circular disc on which his past flashes past in a video montage. This dramatic gesture, I gather, is repeated when he arrives in London. But unfortunately it occurs too far upstage to be seen by a sizeable portion of the audience so whatever great expectations one had of Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Dickens's novel are immediately frustrated.

Director Roger Haines doesn't bring this Dickens epic to life as cogently as his interpretation of Bartlett's Oliver Twist in 2005 but it's a far harder story to carry off. There's a lot to pack in and while the adaptation lacks nothing in integrity (Bartlett uses only Dickens's own words), the balance between the three stages of Pip's life is weighed too heavily on the earlier part.

Pip is given an appealingly unaffected portrayal by Leon Williams, ageing imperceptibly with the passage of time. Richard Heap is a brutal-looking Magwitch and Claire Redcliffe a graceful, frosty Estella, while Helen Ryan makes Miss Havisham a creepy creature, half skeleton, half waxwork model. All of them inhabit this strange and often spooky Victorian world with immense conviction and energy.

Bartlett, who encapsulates much of the mystery, passion and edginess of Dickens's book, was right to use the author's revised ending. The young audience around me – most of whom were enthralled – seemed glad to have their expectations met that Pip and Estella would "continue friends apart".

Both to 17 January: Stephen Joseph Theatre (01723 370 541); Library Theatre (0161-236 7110)