I've been trying to work out why my dislike for Cinderella, the Old Vic's Stephen Fry-scripted pantomime, is so intense. There are people I respect who quite liked it. Ted Hughes helped me to a clearer understanding of my position in one of his superb letters (the recently published selection being, by a long margin, my book of the year).
He's trying to explain what good children's literature can achieve and he remarks that, at its best, it can allow adults to "overhear" the kind of truths they're in danger of forgetting. That is exactly the reverse of Cinderella, which is a case of adults talking and winking to one another over the heads of the children who are a secondary consideration. I thought it was revealing that even the two kids who at each show get roped into a slapstick cooking routine aren't given a present as a memento and are there as unconscious foils to the ribald humour Buttons' penchant for "gentleman's relish" and remarks of that nature.
Don't get me wrong. It's not worth wasting good contempt on tacky, third-rate stuff like Cinderella. But I do feel kind of angry that the kids' interests are discounted. So it's a joy to come across a piece like Marianne Dreams, the Almeida's first Christmas show for children of eight upwards, which does precisely what Hughes said the best literature for young people is capable of doing. This may sound an odd compliment to pay Moira Buffini's excellent, theatrically compelling stage adaptation of the justly celebrated novel by Catherine Storr but it helped me to understand one of W B Yeats's famous lines for the first time. "In dreams begin responsibilities": I've known that phrase all my adult life, without realising quite how profound it is.
This play, presented in a beautiful, clear, funny, haunting and visually imaginative production, brings home in its story of a 10-year-old girl who dreams her drawings to life how we have a duty to our fantasies, for it's in them that our deepest feelings often reside. And it's possible to behave irresponsibly towards them in the manner of a bad artist creating a world over which he is selfish dictator rather than benign despot.
Charmingly played by a young adult actress (Selina Chilton), Marianne is confined to bed because of a fever. She is fussed over by her mother and a beautiful tutor who lets slip that she also visits a boy (Mark, brilliantly portrayed by Mark Arends) who is seriously ill with polio. An enchanting combination of dance drama and clever, coherent visuals that are never too tricksy or hi-tech, the piece dramatises the potential for good and bad, the liberation and the concomitant liabilities of the creative imagination. The drawings begin as scribblings on a screen and then descend in the shape of crooked miniature house or slide slimily down the flats on Anthony Ward's terrific, nicely understated set.
The terror of being in a dream that you have made up and over which you have a nerve-racking degree of control comes across powerfully. I love the way that when she eventually meets the real Mark, he's irritated rather than impressed by the intimacy she feels that has developed between them one-sidedly, of course. And it's such a good stroke that just as you think the widowed mother and the doctor will form a relationship, he reveals that he has a family of his own. Not everything can conform to our dream-wishes.
In her maths lessons, Marianne is asked what is meant by "an acute angle". Marianne Dreams offers its own kind of acute angle on matters of deep concern to children and adults. It's a great Christmas show and the first of what I hope will be a seasonal tradition at the Almeida.
By Paul Taylor
To 26 January (020-7359 4404)