When I hear the word culture, I reach for my chewing gum / THEATRE

Cinderella / Manchester; The Tinder Box / N Staffs

Let's hear it for the real stars of the Christmas shows. First the ushers: the woman on the door at the Vic in Newcastle under Lyme, genial and welcoming, but whom no potentially explosive can shall pass; the young people at Contact in their less than modish Cinderella T-shirts stitching a complex pattern of groups and schools across the rows so that no child is left with trembling lip amid some alien horde. Then the women with bin-bags, the teachers, group-leaders and helpers who have sold the t ickets, booked the coach, taken them to the lavatory and intend that not one wrapper or straw will be littered in their wake. Marshalling six or seven hundred excited and often street-wise 6 to 11-year-olds within the decorum of theatre-going is no task for wimps. It presents a scene that glib commentators on social decay, failing education and the abandonment of childcare would do well to ponder.

And the kids listen. True there's a constant susurrus of bags and packets, a few yawns and the odd facetious shout, but their attention spans much further than is fashionably believed. Peter Whelan's first play for children, The Tinder Box, adapted from a Hans Christian Andersen story, is unfamiliar and quite densely plotted, but it was readily followed, and the deductions required to contribute the necessary magic words to help out the hero, obviously easy-peasy. Stuart Paterson's Cinderel la, the Playmakes fewer demands, but does have a more complex story to tell in that both the Prince and a kitchen-boy are vying for Cinderella's affections. Both scripts rely primarily upon dialogue and character, and both clearly absorbed the overwhelm ing majority of their young audiences.

At Contact, the new artistic director, Benjamin Twist, has chosen to make Cinderella his debut production. In view of the theatre's brief as a space for young people, it is an admirably committed decision to eschew a more fashionable occasion. The show suggests that we might expect fluid, clearly presented work.

This impression is much enhanced by Simon Banham's strikingly simply but colourful set of many curtains, and Twist's skilful use of them to move the narrative. He has also found a strong young lead in the newcomer Naomi Radcliffe, but the boldest single feature is a brilliant ensemble kitchen routine in which the cast, led by percussionist Tim Williams, bang out Mark Vibrans's score on a collection of pots and pans.

The musical interludes in The Tinder Box are less original, but the text is so strong that they are less vital. The two stories - of the homeless soldier back from the wars who, under the guidance of a witch, acquires wealth and a magic tinder box from aperilous descent into the underworld, and of a princess locked away by her parents in a copper tower because a fortune-teller has said she will fall in love with a common soldier - have a predictable convergence, but the twists and turns are always intriguing.

Playing the soldier, another promising young actor (Daniel Tomlinson) has a strong bearing and sympathetic presence. His advice on sleeping out, with special reference to rats and snakes, will have been well- heeded: a bit of practical learning in the broad social education that is Christmas theatre.

n `Cinderella' runs until 14 Jan. Box-office: 061-274 4400

n `The Tinder Box' is in rep to 28 Jan. Box-office: 01782 717962

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