Herge's Adventures of Tintin, Barbican, London

Look out Snowy - they're here for some festive cheer
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The Independent Culture

One of the most notorious stage directions of recent times - up there with Shakespeare's "Exit pursued by a bear" - occurs in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt Of The Sun. "They climb the Andes," it states, with no theatrical advice as to how.

Well, in the Young Vic's fabulous new dramatisation of Hergé's Adventures of Tintin - based on the vintage strip cartoons and co-produced by BITE: 05 - the challenge is even bigger. Our nightmare-troubled boy-hero races to rescue his friend Chang, refusing to believe he has died on a remote, frozen mountainside. For almost half the show, Russell Tovey's bequiffed Tintin, his faithful hound Snowy (embodied by Simon Trinder), and their salty seadog chum, Sam Cox's Captain Haddock, have to look as if they're ascending the Himalayas. This involves clawing their way up an ice cliff and getting knocked for six by an avalanche, not to mention, "Enter a seven-foot, hairyYeti."

Yet director Rufus Norris, of Festen fame, is undaunted, working with the playwright David Greig on this co-adaptation. Norris' actors, playing multiple parts and music too (on fiddles, saxes and percussive suitcases) create brilliantly playful physical theatre.

As Tovey, Trinder and Cox rush from their Alpine holiday to catch a plane, flying economy class gains a whole new meaning. Only the steel boarding steps are wheeled onstage, up which the trio scramble, turn and freeze. A drawling air hostess stands at its foot, so to speak, on automatic pilot. She wafts her arms in that ritualistic aisles-and-seatbelts semaphore, then starts whirring them round at the elbow like propellers, madly jittering until she finally flings wide and we're flying. Soon after, everybody is whizzing around on rickety bicycles. We are in a bustling oriental city with hilarious cartoony performances from gangly Mark Lockyer in a loincloth and a rage, and from stubby Miltos Yerolemou, officiously dispensing expedition permits from a dinging, hooting tricycle.

Ian MacNeil's set is spectacular too, with a white floor like an Expressionist ski slope, kiltered every which way, and a panorama of distant craggy peaks. In interspersed dream sequences, characters from back home surreally pop up, towering over these pinnacles and singing ditties. Composer Orlando Gough's musical numbers are well integrated and brief - never big set pieces - and range in style from barber-shop to Buddhist chanting.

Maybe Tovey and Cox shout too much in their early scenes, and the narrative momentum and theatrical inspiration wane slightly towards the end. But the illusion of trekking is highly entertaining when Haddock, fuelled on whisky, firstly accelerates away past all the Sherpas who are trudging sensibly (on the spot), only to reappear, sliding back in reverse gear and farcically wilting. Meanwhile, Trinder is priceless as Snowy, with bleached curls and white plus-fours, eagerly ruffing "I love you", twitching, sniffing and scampering. Every now and then he suddenly plumps down on his rump or falls asleep, belly-up, legs curled - ever so slightly camp with a touch of Frank Spencer, and adorably infantine like a baby brother.

In stark contrast, there's a very dark, scary passage when they find the wrecked skeleton of the aircraft in which Chang was a passenger, with the dead still in their seats, suddenly choiring, "Save me". Prim parents should also probably be warned: one or two wildly liberated bits of slang are lobbed into Haddock's volleys of joke-expletives. However, this is carried off with merry, breathtaking brio, quite free of seedy, panto-style innuendo.

As for more meaningful content, this piece celebrates devoted friendship and explores, not uncritically, how we cope with death. The roaring, monstrous Yeti interestingly becomes a metaphor for the drink-addled Captain's demons and then a poignant image of loneliness. This is a terrific, top quality family show, recommended for over-sevens and just as great for adults. As the woman in front of me remarked to her friend: "I thought it was going to be good, but not this good!"

To 22 January, 0845 120 7754