THEATRE / There's no business like Noh business: The Witches - Duke of York's; The Ghost Train - Lyric, Hammersmith

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THERE ARE times, such as when Ariel stands on a wooden roof, speaking Japanese from behind a mask, when Yukio Ninagawa's Tempest looks suspiciously like an evening for those in the Noh. There are no surtitles, and if you don't speak Japanese you begin by thinking this must be where Prospero says the bit about x and Miranda says the bit about why. Then you give up and start following a different kind of theatrical language: gestures and tones, music, dance and lighting; and in these areas Ninagawa's Tempest goes down a storm.

Back in Britain for only four performances, four years after its visit to the Edinburgh Festival, the production brings together radically different traditions through two central conceits. One is to adapt Shakespeare's characters to the archetypal roles of a Noh play. The other is to turn this into a rehearsal of a Noh play on the island of Sado, where the founder of Noh theatre was banished. It's the kind of bold reordering of a situation that Prospero himself might admire.

The range of styles Noh embraces matches the range of characters that populate the island. The distinctions are clear in the way they enter and exit. When Ariel (Yoji Matuda) exits, he raises his white cloak over his head and trots off, as if sheltering from the rain. A punky Caliban (Hiroki Okawa) has a huge fish-tail and short wooden stilts and still manages back-flips. When he is not the sternly nautical Prospero, Haruhiko Joh drifts back to his director's seat, keeps one eye on the script, and claps when he wants a scene-change.

Nevertheless, this is still a play, not a display, and hearing Shakespeare in Japanese is like seeing a Technicolor X-ray: the bones stand out, but fuzzily. We move from the brilliant turbulence of the opening storm, conjured out of swinging ropes and billowing sheets, to a reconciliation of rare stillness. At the epilogue, the cast moves out of the wings to listen as the director (Joh) breaks his stick in the spotlight and lets the pages of the script fall to the ground. He takes a long, slow bow. There is silence in the house.

There was no such thing at The Witches: just a happy backing track of popcorn-chomping, sniffling and whispering. When the stridently vampish Grand High Witch, Dorothy Ann Gould, wearing black with crimson velvet gloves, pulled off her wig to reveal a crinkly bald head, a girl shouted out, 'Oh, that's disgusting.' It was.

This latest Roald Dahl adaptation is David Wood's follow-up to The BFG, last year's hit, and marks his 25th year of writing for children's theatre. All the reasons that make The Witches a tricky subject to stage make it a good one too. Dahl's stories probably upset parents more than children, and this one has just the right sort of wrong ending. Something that the film version, starring Anjelica Huston, naturally went and changed. At a convention in a Bournemouth hotel, witches plan to rid the world of children by turning them into mice. Technically this is tricky, not just for the witches. It calls for a large cast; two of the central characters spend half the play as mice; the hero is a small boy; and people shrink before our eyes.

Wood deals effectively with each challenge. An actress (Karen Briffett) plays the boy. A team of amateurs supplements the professional cast as witches. The puppeteer, John Thirtle, provides mice that not only scuttle along floors, but also pop out of bags, move along a rope with their hands and pour medicine into a soup tureen. Designer Susie Caulcutt switches the action from the humans' point of view to that of the mice: shades of The Borrowers. This gives Adam Stafford a delightful routine as a greedy mouse trying to get up a step while holding on to a Quality Street. And Wood does not shirk the shrinking scenes.

The Witches toured before it opened in London and will tour again. The programme tells us it can fit into one pantechnicon, and it looks a little portable by West End standards. The cheapest effects were the bald heads and extended fingernails of the witches: hopeless. The amateurs, though, only gave themselves away at the curtain call, when they looked sheepish compared to the practised smiles of the pros.

Some ghost stories are best left undisturbed. Judging by its latest revival, The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley (of Dad's Army), is one. Director John Adams never decides what he wants to do with a spooky entertainment written the same year as The Vortex.

Perhaps the best thing to do with a group of passengers stranded overnight in a haunted station in Cornwall is to play the whole thing for real. There is no point dealing in the supernatural if there isn't something natural for it to go beyond. The worst thing you can do is wink at the audience and beg a little indulgence; which is what happens in the spoof tableau that closes each act.

The cast latches on to the Twenties argot as if it were some end in itself, when the deuces and dash-its tell us next to nothing about their characters. If you have to wear a monocle and plus-fours, it is best to wear them lightly.

The Ghost Train could be a gloomy, wet, miserable affair, into which we are drawn, against our will, by the plausibility of the acting. Not here. As the station-master with the horrible tale, the bearded Bill Oddie heaves his small, bow-legged figure around the waiting room with all the raw chill of a June afternoon. He was always a Goodie.

'The Witches': Duke of York's (071-836 5122). 'The Ghost Train': Lyric, Hammersmith (081-741 2311).

Irving Wardle is on holiday.

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