THEATRE
Under Tim Supple's artistic directorship, the Young Vic has carved itself a strong niche in the Christmas-show market, using ensemble casts and placing a high value on good storytelling. Adults and children alike are expected to listen if they want to go on the journey. Which, understandably, they all do. Magpie-like, these productions also draw on an exotic range of costume, dance and music from non-European traditions (Indian, Chinese, Arabic). Now the Young Vic presents Beauty and the Beast, adapted and directed by Laurence Boswell. Like the others, Beauty and the Beast offers the dark as well as the light side: restoring levels of meaning that are usually flattened out. In doing this, it is a million miles from the stock routines and topical gags of the panto tradition.

This is only right with a tale that deals so fully with unconscious fears and desires - yes, deep down, it's another story about sex. If the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast impresses us most by its marketing and merchandise, the Boswell version works its box-office magic through minimalism. Boswell's intelligent, authentic adaptation opens - as does the 18th-century version by Madame Leprince de Beaumont - with the merchant with three sons and three daughters, moving from prosperity to ruin. In a characteristically light touch, a small model of a rustic cottage replaces a palatial town- house. In search of wealth, the father (a harried Jonathan Hackett) sets off on the jour- ney that leads to the Beast's palace. Tantalisingly, Boswell delays the Beast's big entrance: before the interval, we hear deafening growls. After the interval, when Beauty (an ardent, unsentimental Liz May Brice) finally meets the Beast (Simon Gregor), the event gets the kind of build- up Martin Sheen underwent before coming face to face with Marlon Brando in the final reel of Apocalypse Now. In Anthony MacIlwaine's designs, the Beast looks distinctly Balinese: his masked head has boar's teeth, wooden sticks as cheeks and a mass of punky feathers sticking out. He crosses the round stage on Equus-style hooves, circling Beauty, who is trapped up to her waist. How can she ever love him? One criticism of this enchanting show is that Beauty gets too much advice on this score. If only she had discovered Beast's qualities for herself, in the way Victor Hugo gets Esmerelda to learn that Quasimodo is a nice chap really.

Lea Anderson's inventive choreography transforms the whole company by turn into a horse, a carriage, or a staircase. Mick Sands's kaleidoscopic music moves us effectively from courtly urban prosperity to folksy rural impoverishment to the wondrous Eastern sounds (ragas, etc) as they enter the Palace. Here Boswell creates delightful set-pieces - the Room of Mirrors, the Room of Musical Harmony - that leave us thinking we saw more than we ever did.

In 1990, Griff Rhys Jones was going into the Savoy with a Ben Travers farce, Thark, when the theatre caught fire. Undeterred, Rhys Jones returns to the restored Savoy this Christmas in another Travers farce, Plunder. He plays the fiance of a young woman (Sara Crowe) returning to the house of her late grandfather, intending to take over the property. When they discover the old man went and married the vulgar housekeeper shortly before he died, Rhys Jones teams up with a gentleman burglar (Kevin McNally), who is after the family jewels. In Peter James's energetic production, there's bags of running around, jaw-dropping and snappy repartee. But we must face what these characters would call "fects". There are very few laughs.

The problem isn't that the 1920s world of plus-fours, monocles, "dahling" this and "jolly-well" that, is so daft and distant. It is the acting. Two sets of quote marks hang over Rhys Jones's entire performance. He seems too intelligent: instead of innocence and foolishness, his natural comic line is condescension and pedantry. The twiddling fingers, arched eyebrows, reddening face, strangulated tones and silly walks: all these tricks are the imitation of a style and not the thing itself. McNally has moments of dapper insouciance at the police station (very David Niven), but this time, sadly, Crowe winds up her performance so far it would have been no surprise to have seen a clockwork key sticking out of her back.

Eighteen months ago, Tom Morris, a theatre critic on the Independent, took over as artistic director of BAC. Since then he has won Lottery funding of pounds 810,000 and this year's Peter Brook Empty Space Award. As director, Morris's first production was Beckett's radio play All That Fall, which the cast performed in the dark. His second production, Trio, which previewed this week, experiments in musical theatre. There are three musicians: one female violinist, Daisy Jopling, with a big smile and a quick line in ad-libbing; one male violinist, Aleksey Igudesman, with a Smartie-coloured shirt and a hole in his socks; and one male cellist, Tristan Schulze, with long hair and bare feet. Together they lark about, shift places round the bare auditorium, improvise pieces, speak text through pieces, play their compositions and others, while dazzling us with their musicianship. The result is an off-beat, irreverent, and very talented divertissement.

This week, as Martin McDonagh's excellent first play The Beauty Queen of Leenane reopens at the Royal Court Downstairs (at the Duke of York's), Jim Cartwright's new 47-minute play I Licked A Slag's Deodorant, opens at the Royal Court Upstairs (at the Ambassadors). As with Road, Cartwright proves exceptional at catching the vitality of individual lives in the North through monologue. Here are two characters: a "Man" played by Tim Potter, who eats TV suppers in front of David Attenborough programmes and smears deodorant on the inside of bras which he then wears over his face; and "Slag" played by Polly Hemingway, who stands in front of a wall on the wet street, offering sexual relief so that she can get some relief of her own from Uncle Crack. The heart of the piece is Hemingway's stunning performance: gritty, strident, unsentimental and quivering from addiction.

Still at the Court: East is East sold out before it opened (the run finished yesterday). In February, however, the same production opens at Stratford East. This hilarious debut play, by the actor Ayub Khan-Din, takes place in a Salford house and chip shop in 1970, where a first-generation Pakistani father tries to exert his dwindling authority over his white wife and six children. Khan-Din packs in so many lively characters and incidents - with an almost Dickensian boldness - that after only a couple of hours in the company of the warring Khan family, you wish you were going to meet them - and this hugely entertaining cast - on a more regular basis.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.

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