Young Vic, London
Hackney Empire, London
Hansel and Gretel
Lyric Hammersmith, London
Gilz Terera is undoubtedly the star of Honk! The Ugly Duckling, the National's new family musical. He plays Ugly, but he is far from bad- looking. Tall and too agile to be truly gawky (though he gives it an enthusiastic try), he has emerged from his large egg in grey shorts, cap and blazer. Any mother - fair or fowl - would have been proud.
But Ida (Beverley Klein, in a white rubber mini-dress with orange leggings and knee-length DMs) isn't - though she's quite impressed with his swimming. His siblings are small, dressed in yolk-yellow dungarees and green-peaked baseball caps. They look cool. They're also half the size of Terera, and a third of his age. If he retaliated to their pinches and punches, they'd be pate.
There's hardly a feather in sight in Julia McKenzie's colourful production. Geese become a uniformed squadron, marshalled by a barking (and mad) "Wing Commander". A cat and hen become tweedy spinsters, united across the species divide by their common interest in needlepoint. The swans, in their white puffa jackets and wraparound shades, wouldn't look out of place in Meribel. Anthony Drewe's script is speckled with adult-inclined wordplay and corny puns. Once Ugly's true, Daz-white colours have shone through - and he struts around like a clubber with attitude - it's disappointingly nice of him to forgive his tormentors. He should be flapping vengefully around the lake, terrorising its inhabitants and biting small children. I demand an anthromorphically realist sequel: "Cob! The Master Swan".
That said, there's enough saccharine in Ida's odyssey to find her lost offspring, and Klein often overemotes. Some of George Stiles's more overblown musical moments - lyrics such as "Every tear a mother cries is a dream that's washed away" - give her little option. But the rest of the jaunty and varied score compensates. Jasper Britton's spivvish Cat is a very arch villain, and David Burt performs a wonderful vaudevillian turn as a chipper bullfrog. The sight of the whole company - male and female, beer-bellied and lithe-limbed - squeezed into green satin body suits as a frog chorus-line is marvellous.
And yet, for all the production values, Honk! fails to match the inventiveness of The Nativity. David Farr's vernacular adaptation has Mary and Joseph narrating their own journey, from courtship to their exhausted return home. Toby Jones's Joseph is a gauche bundle of goodwill; Nina Sosanya's Mary is a strong, earthy woman. Their donkey (played by an actor with leather ear-flaps) talks.
But the power comes from visual effects which are either simply beautiful or disturbingly dark: the Massacre of the Innocents uses the circular stage's trap doors and blood-red streamers to terrifying, expressionistic effect. Puppetry, mime, sleights of hand and coups de theatre - plus atmospheric lighting and haunting, Balinese-tinged music - create other memorable images. It's far from a reverent narration, but it's sensitive and pertinent. There are diversions - Old Testament tales brought to life as parables about faith - but it still kept a couple of hundred schoolkids transfixed for two hours on a Tuesday afternoon. Even a long pause after a mammoth, metallic Goliath got no further than the wings wasn't fatal to the young audience's expectant concentration. Goliath's operator simply came on, mean and bellowing, to improvise with the tiny puppet of David. And it still worked.
There were no surprises with the more traditional festive fare. Susie McKenna's production of Cinderella ticks off all the pantomime prerequisites: a couple of soap stars who can't quite sing (Carol Harrison, Richard Elis, both formerly of EastEnders); a leading man who can't really act; terrible puns and, ahem, hackneyed dialogue; and the inclusion of a few random chart hits. But it's markedly improved by a modern sensibility and two fantastic performers: Sharon D Clarke as a soul-diva Fairy Godmother, and Clive Rowe as one of the Ugly Sisters. Rowe and Tony Whittle truly are a gruesome twosome, entering in cheerleader costumes like a couple of redcoats on steroids, then going through the show's budget in an array of outsize silk monstrosities. In the National's Guys and Dolls, Rowe's rendition of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" stopped the show every night. He does the same again here, partly through being irrepressibly cheeky - but mainly because he's making the rest of the cast laugh.
Polly Irvin's production of Hansel and Gretel starts with the pair slumped, bored, on a couch before disappearing into the woods via their PlayStation. If Irvin had stuck with the computer-game concept - following stones back to the woodcutter's cottage gets you a thousand points and on to the next level - it would have been more radical. Though she creates some enchanting effects, the script is patchy. Tom Fisher (a six-foot, knock- kneed Scouse Hansel) and Carla Henry are endearing. But they become quite literally lost when required to interact with an audience that's too streetwise to play along helpfully. "Yeah, nice one, mate" isn't really panto.
`Honk!': Olivier, SE1 (0171 452 3000) in rep to 25 March; `Nativity': Young Vic, SE1 (0171 928 6363) to 29 Jan; `Cinderella': Hackney Empire, E8 (0181 985 2424) to 9 Jan; `Hansel': Lyric Hammersmith, W6 (0181 741 2311) to 30 DecReuse content