The Snowman, Peacock Theatre, London<br/>Beauty And The Beast, Hippodrome, Birmingham

A show that hasn't flaked
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The Independent Culture

This adaptation of The Snowman has become a London Christmas tradition, older than most of the children in the audience. Now in its eighth West End season, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre production shows no sign of fading. An audience perched on booster cushions bounces up and down at the sight of the Snowman, waves at characters on stage, and exclaims with delight over the flying scenes.

The story, taken from Raymond Briggs's book and cartoon film, is acted out in mime and dance. The storytelling and jokes are big, simple, easy to follow.

The director, Bill Alexander, and choreographer, Robert North, adapt or invent incidents. In the boy's playroom, soldier and ballerina dolls dance. In the kitchen, the contents of the fruitbowl start dancing. When boy and Snowman travel to the North Pole, they meet a snow princess and a spiky Jack Frost.

The dancing includes pointe work and ballet jumps, but this isn't a dance show. The duet for the Snowman and the snow princess is the weakest episode: it flags when North lingers on a scene.

Ruari Murchison dresses animals and fruit in bright colours. The set designs, satisfyingly solid, are fluent enough to keep the show moving smoothly. The boy's house is built on several levels - in later scenes, the house and furniture pull back, leaving open snow or a big interior room.

The familiarity of the book, film and music - Howard Blake's "Walking in the Air" is played several times - is a large part of this show's appeal. Children wait expectantly for the flying scenes, or for the party of snowmen at the North Pole. Characters are happily identified, additions quickly judged. "That," said the little girl behind me during the North Pole scene, "is a groovy penguin."

The flying scenes are the hit of the performance. The boy and his Snowman half-skate across the stage, feet sliding gently, before soaring into the air. They float gently, or run in lazy slow motion high above the stage. Coming back to earth, they land with a zigzag scamper.

At this performance, the boy was played by Jack O'Connor. He makes a determined hero, bouncing emphatically down the stairs or skipping through dance steps. The rest of the cast bounce tirelessly through steps and costume changes.

Ballets can become more streamlined in performance. At its premiere two years ago, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Beauty and the Beast lumbered along. In this revival, it proves to be a much tauter show. David Bintley, the company's artistic director as well as its chief choreographer, has revised his production.

Performances are well-focused and alert. In the second act, the Beast gives a ball in honour of the heroine, Belle. When her nasty sisters arrange a wedding celebration, the company can get a laugh from a dance step done solemnly, once to the left, once to the right. But it's a perilous laugh, because Bintley's choreography is prone to just this kind of symmetry. The improved pacing and storytelling make Beauty and the Beast a much better show, but they don't solve all its problems. Bintley aims at choreographic richness, with corps scenes, and classical and character dances. His model seems to be Ashton's Cinderella, though steps for the corps suggest that he has been looking at Balanchine, too. Bintley knows how it's done, but that doesn't mean he can do it. Glenn Buhr's score keeps Bintley well-provided with dance rhythms, but neither composer nor choreographer sweep us up in them.

There are some nice ideas. When the Beast is turned back into a handsome prince, Bintley's Belle doesn't recognise him. To reassure her, he leads her through the steps of their dance from the ball. But the point is blurred by the duet that follows: she goes right on not recognising him.

'The Snowman' to 8 January (0870 737 7737); 'Beauty and the Beast' ends today (0870 730 1234)

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