Oh no, she isn't appearing! Oh yes, she is! The Old Vic delayed the press performance of its new upmarket pantomime, Cinderella, at alarmingly short notice last weekend. Had all the jokes specially scripted by Stephen Fry suddenly run away to Paris? No, but it wasn't possible to see the narrator, Sandi Toksvig, for several days. That sounded like a case of wickedly malfunctioning stage magic, as if the comedian had been, perhaps, accidentally vapourised. In fact, Toksvig had bronchitis. Happily, she rallied fast and was back on top form by mid-week, deadpan dry wit intact.
Promising a tale of passion, jealousy, cross-dressing and jelly, she first materialises sporting a smoking jacket and pencil moustache floating on high in a green armchair. It's a dreamy start and thereafter she keeps popping up rather like a magician's rabbit in the royal box one minute, on the conductor's podium the next, or squeezing out of the oven in Cinders' kitchen.
There are odd slack patches. The pumpkin-converting wizardry isn't dazzling and several musical numbers are feeble, with Fry going lame on lyrics. Some characters are sorely underwritten too, with Debbie Chazen hardly registering as the Wicked Stepmother. Still, directed by Fiona Laird, this show is loads more fun than the Old Vic's overrated Aladdin. Fry combines flurries of ludicrously erudite dialogue with breathtakingly filthy double entendres. You don't have to contract bronchitis to end up wheezing with laughter.
Mark Lockyer, as one of the Ugly Sisters, looks monstrously like Amy Winehouse with a hairy chest. The beautifully funny actor Joseph Millson is the first Prince Charming I've seen who lives up to his name, and Madeleine Worrall is a truly lovely Cinders with a preposterous product-placement habit wittering away about the wonders of specific cleaning fluids. Pauline Collins is a refreshingly mouthy Fairy Godmother, giving the heroine an earful about being a pliant wimp, and Paul Keating's Buttons is a delight, coming out of the closet for a double wedding.
A pink plastic Christmas tree is twinkling in the Hopcrofts' semi-detached in Absurd Person Singular. Enjoying a big-name West End revival directed by Alan Strachan, Alan Ayckbourn's Seventies comedy takes us to three Yuletide parties with a year passing between each. The twist is that we're always in the kitchen, viewing the neurotic goings-on there. Moreover, while the homes get posher, we are actually slithering down the ladder as regards domestic bliss, with unhappy housewives on every rung.
Firstly, David Bamber's shop-owning Sidney Hopcroft a Brylcreemed dry stick wants to impress his bank manager, Mr Brewster-Wright (David Horovitch). Jane Horrocks's Mrs Hopcroft is, however, in a farcical flap. Twelve months on, the hospitality is being returned by two of their other guests: a womanising architect, Geoffrey (John Gordon Sinclair), and his suicidal bonkers wife, Eva (Lia Williams). Finally, round at the Brewster-Wrights' mansion, only the Hopcrofts now big in the building trade are crowing with mirth as the lives of their former betters quietly disintegrate.
By comparison with Strachan's recent superb revival of Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves, this is mildly disappointing. Horrocks's twittering Mrs Hopcroft isn't terribly funny. Nonetheless, the gallows humour intensifies and Williams proves an agile clown as she attempts to gas herself in the oven and hang herself from the light flex being repeatedly saved by the unwitting, busybodying Hopcrofts. Bamber also becomes nightmarishly macabre as he cavorts drunkenly in a paper crown, forcing everyone to join his dance.
Lastly, there's something faintly absurd about the film-maker Rainer Fassbinder's cult Seventies drama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, awkwardly translated into English and staged, avant garde-style, in an freezing brick vault. In fact, one can't help thinking it should be far more absurd.
Sasha Behar's Petra is a stunningly beautiful but endlessly posturing fashion designer. She is metaphorically tearing her hair out because her passion for a model-on-the-make, Naomi Taylor's Karen, is only causally reciprocated. You sense that Fassbinder was writing from experience about tortured love and I know he was simultaneously spoofing Hollywood femmes fatales. Yet it's hard to care a damn about his preposterously affected, self-interested protagonists and the satire, unhoned, often looks like embarrassingly bad acting.
Behar and her designer friends mince around as if they're on a perpetual catwalk. She occasionally shoots out a hand, exclaiming about excruciating pain but looking like a melodramatic traffic cop. That said, Yvonne McDevitt's young company certainly has flair. It may yet go places.
' Cinderella' (0870-060 6628) to 20 January; 'Absurd Person Singular' (0870-040 0046) booking to 22 March; 'The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant' (0870-060 1761) to 5 JanuaryReuse content