THEATRE / Fringe: Storm in a children's teacup: Sarah Hemming on Liz Lochhead's The Magic Island, Goldoni's The New Apartment and David Pownall's Death of a Faun

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In Richard Williams's new production of The Tempest Ferdinand wears a frock, Caliban is a red-nosed clown, Prospero juggles and the Empire from which he has been banished is a music-hall theatre. This is not, however, some wild, expressionist reading of the text, but Liz Lochhead's sparky version for children, The Magic Island, at the Unicorn Theatre.

Lochhead helps her audience into the story by tacking on a prologue by Miranda, who sets the context. Dad, we learn, was a stage magician, best of his kind, until his money-minded brother - manager of the Empire - decided to oust live art in favour of cinema. Prospero was cast out, got work aboard the Titanic - and the rest is the subject of the play. After a few doubtful twinges (wouldn't children cope just as well with the true story of a banished Duke with magic powers?) this version is highly enjoyable. For adults, Lochhead neatly fits strands of the original into the new framework; for children there is some tangible magic and plenty of stage business. Meanwhile Lochhead slips in a nice bit of indoctrination about the importance of live theatre, as opposed to cinema.

The remorseful Antonio (Mark Faith) looks like a pantomime baddy, and Clive Duncan's Drinculo - as the drunken Trinculo satisfyingly becomes - is a galumphing low-grade support act in a virulent pink suit. Not quite so successful is the rather stiff relationship between Peter Wear's Prospero and Carol Russell's Ariel - the magic man himself is a curious dry stick while his servant, a not very ethereal acrobat, arrives and departs on a circus swing. There is little urgency to Ariel's pleas for freedom.

The decision to turn Ferdinand into Fernandelle, another little girl, is a resounding success however. Here the attraction between the two is friendship, rather than love, yet some of the central ideas of betrayal and allegiances can still be tackled and the meeting between the girls is touching.

For the most part the play is paraphrased, laced with child-parent digs and corny gags: 'Say sorry properly', demands Drinculo of Antonio at one point. 'Sorry properly,' he retorts. But at key points Lochhead slips back into Shakespeare's original - notably for Prospero's explanation to Miranda of their background and for some of the play's most beautiful passages, among them 'the isle is full of noises' and 'we are such stuff as dreams are made on.' This is naturally not a production that attempts to get to grips with the profundity of this great play. But it does keep faith with many of its themes and its mysteriousness, celebrates the writing, and is performed with pace and humour.

Shakespeare makes some unexpected appearances in Robert David MacDonald's new translation of Goldoni's comedy, The New Apartment (Company of Clerks, Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford). Anzoletto, the impecunious husband, repents his recent marriage to a grasping wife: 'Just a month . . . a little month,' he sighs, echoing Hamlet. MacDonald has always been a wickedly cavalier translator, a borrower, and the results, as here, are often sprightly and witty. It's a shame that the production does not quite keep pace.

Goldoni gave himself his own crit of The New Apartment: 'I cannot find fault with it' - perhaps a bit of an estate agent's description, but it is certainly a beautifully made comedy, which weaves into the buying of a new house plenty of sharp social criticism about greed, snobbery and jealousy. Guy K Retallack's production starts well, with a funny bunch of disgruntled Spanish builders, is cleverly staged and has a few very good performances, (from Zoe Aldrich as the icily charming, vacuous wife, Jonathan Coyne as the rich uncle and Maggie Cronin as the kindly neighbour). But other performances are weaker and the production tends to amble along at almost the same pace throughout, attenuating the comedy.

The London fringe is something of a Gro-Bag for solo plays about famous figures. This month Nicholas Johnson brings his one-man play about Nijinsky to the Orange Tree, Richmond. In Death of a Faun, written by David Pownall, the dancer is at the Bellevue Sanatorium where he has been confined since becoming insane. He has just learned of the death of Diaghilev and this sparks off a torrent of memories and twisted feelings about the impresario.

For most of the show both writing and performance suggest that Nijinsky's madness took the form of infantile sulking mixed with bursts of paranoia and religious raving: there is only one moment when the terror of madness bursts through, and this Johnson performs with great power, suggesting the grief and torture of the man. Elsewhere it is this intensity that is missing from an otherwise fascinating ramble through the dancer's past and relationship with Diaghilev, which Johnson performs with passion.

'The Magic Island' runs to 31 March, Unicorn, London WC2 (071-836 3334); 'The New Apartment' to 20 Feb Watermans Arts Centre, Brentford (081-568 1176); 'Death of a Faun' to 13 Feb, Orange Tree, Richmond (081-940 3633).

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