Swallows and Amazons, Bristol Old Vic, Bristol
My Dad's a Birdman, Young Vic, London

A 1920s children's classic gets a makeover in a production of glorious inventiveness

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Strictly speaking, it's a feather duster. However, this bit of fluff transmogrifies into a brilliant flitting parrot – pet of the irascible pirate Captain Flint. The parrot's beak is created, in a flash, by the addition of secateurs.

In a less inspired adaptation, Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons could feel dated, set in 1929, with middle-class siblings spending their hols mucking about in boats and bearing in mind Daddy's telegram about not being duffers.

But this production is a joy, directed by Tom Morris and Toby Sedgwick (of the celebrated War Horse). Helen Edmundson's dialogue sounds fresh, sparingly strewn with period lingo, as John, Susan, Titty and little Roger Walker embark on their Lake District adventures, eventually befriending Flint (in reality an author on a houseboat).

The cast delight in childish imaginativeness, utilising bits and bobs you might find beachcombing, or stashed in Granny's cupboard. The Walkers' sailboat, Swallow, is evoked with ingenious economy, its prow a wishbone-shaped sliver of jetsam held in the outstretched hands of Stewart Wright's massive bearded Roger (funniest when lying face down in a sulk). Blue and white ribbons stream behind, fluttering like spume and functioning as pulleys, making the vessel tack.

Onstage folk and jazz musicians double as stagehands. Holding up a circular picture frame, as if we're seeing through John's telescope, they magnify the approaching enemy. So Flint's marauding nieces, the Amazons, are dolls in a toy dinghy, then large as life – played by Celia Adams and Amy Booth-Steel, snarling in feather headdresses.

Several songs (by Neil Hannon) hinder the story's flow, but the Amazons' roistering shanty is a hoot, and Akiya Henry as Titty dives off a piano in her swimming togs with elan.

Though intimate and nicely acted, My Dad's a Birdman never quite takes flight. Lizzie (Charlie Sanderson) is a sturdy motherless child whose Geordie dad (David Annen) has turned his office suit into a feathery cloak, with sticky tape. He's determined to get airborne and win The Great Human Bird Competition, persuading Lizzie to build herself wings too. She takes time off school and they sleep in a scraggy nest of plastic bags, hardly rendered magical by a few fairy lights. The implicit grim reality is that Annen is having a breakdown, believing he can fly and drawing his offspring into his delusions.

Dramatising David Almond's story for five- to eight-year-olds, most of Oliver Mears' production is not visually enchanting, and the happy ending strikes me as disturbingly unrealistic. Lizzie and Dad jump off a bridge into the Tyne and emerge, apparently unscathed, exclaiming it was a blast.

Ah well, the kids in the audience chortled, unfazed. Annen dances around like an impish seagull, nose stabbing into his breakfast toast and jam. The songs, by the Pet Shop Boys, are lame, but the launch pad at the flying competition is a giggle, with flailing rocket-men and giant bumblebees taking tumbles while the fez-topped MC crows into a loudhailer.

'Swallows and Amazons' (0117-987 7877) to 15 Jan; 'My Dad's A Birdman' (020-7922 2922) to 1 Jan

Next week

Kate Bassett races to The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, a blur of actors and cartoons

Kate Bassett: Theatre 2010

Most Storming Performance The year produced a crop of terrific comic performances, not least from Mark Rylance, right, assing around, in massive buck teeth, in La Bête, and Simon Russell Beale brilliantly droll in the thriller Deathtrap. Judi Dench and Oliver Chris were an unforgettable Titania and Bottom in Peter Hall's Midsummer Night's Dream, she laughing delightedly, like Elizabeth I letting her hair down. The trophy must go, nonetheless, to Bertie Carvel (and you can still catch him) in drag, playing the beastly headmistress in the RSC's Roald Dahl musical, Matilda. Spinning rebellious brats by their pigtails, his Miss Trunchbull is a hilariously butch, hunchbacked ogress. Think Richard the Third running St Trinian's.

Special Mention More delicate but just as memorable, Nancy Carroll, shone as the quietly heartbroken Bright Young Thing Joan in Terence Rattigan's After the Dance, right, at the National, and as the gullible/ conniving psychotherapist in David Mamet's House of Games at the Almeida.

Sinking Feeling The year's nadir was Kathryn Hunter making a pig's ear of Shakespeare's poetry in the RSC's Antony and Cleopatra, below right. But a booby prize goes to Birdsong too. An exercise in shooting oneself in the foot, Trevor Nunn's staging of Sebastian Faulks's First World War novel was astoundingly inept, with risibly wobbling sets and sporadic attacks of melodrama. Spectacularly failing to live up to its name, The Fantasticks – inexplicably long-running in New York – was a slapstick show that wouldn't have tickled a three-year-old. It keeled over two weeks after its London opening.

Startling Promenades Two immersive shows took theatregoers' breath away, creating crazy mazes in derelict buildings. At the Brighton Festival, Before I Sleep had audience-members pursuing ghosts from The Cherry Orchard around a crumbling ex-emporium. Some even popped up in the old shop window, bewildering passers-by. Taking over a Bethnal Green office block (under the Barbican's aegis), You Me Bum Bum Train was another promenade-and-then-some. Crawling alone through a dark tunnel, you were suddenly launched into the arms of a cheering crowd, deliriously surfing over their heads.

Glittering Gems As her NT directorial debut, Josie Rourke blew the dust off Ena Lamont Stewart's long-overlooked Scottish play, Men Should Weep, to reveal a remarkable, tender and humorous portrait of Glasgow tenement life during the Great Depression. A Raisin in The Sun – Lorraine Hansberry's drama set in racially ghettoised 1950s Chicago – was superbly revived at Manchester Royal Exchange, starring Ray Fearon and Jenny Jules. The Royal Court premiered an electrifying sequel to that. A razor-sharp satire about xenophobia, past and present, Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park richly deserves its imminent transfer to Wyndham's Theatre.

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