Dysfunctional families and financial misfortune are pretty standard fare in festive fairy-tales, but The Prince and the Pauper brings a nice twist to the idea, with a story that offers poor parenting examples from both ends of the social spectrum.
Adapted from Mark Twain’s novel, Jemma Kennedy’s drama is set in not so Merrie England. The prince is Edward, Henry VIII’s son, who feels stifled by palace protocol; the pauper is Tom Canty, who likes reading, but has few prospects as the son of a drunken wastrel, social mobility being undervalued in Tudor times. But Tom and Edward just happen to look identical, and end up accidentally swapping lives, with Tom attempting to busk his way through royal banquets and Edward slumming it on Offal Street. When Edward finally makes it on to the throne, his episode seeing how the other half lives serves to make him a more tolerant king.
Selina Cartmell’s sprightly, imaginative production holds its young audience rapt throughout. Real-life identical twins Danielle and Nichole Bird play the two young leads, making them both spirited and serious, while all around them a versatile cast create the two worlds. There’s a touch of Horrible Histories to proceedings, but the staging has its own jaunty style, delivered as a play within a play by some strolling minstrels. And with its use of mistaken identity, preoccupation with good kingship and depiction of a prince roughing it with the lower orders, this delightful show also offers a neat introduction to Shakespearean themes.
Meanwhile, at the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, east London, Punchdrunk Enrichment serves up a charming induction into immersive theatre for three-to-six-year-olds. In The House Where Winter Lives, the eccentric Mr and Mrs Winter invite their young audience into a cosy little cottage. The children snuggle round the table to make gingerbread men, then don hats and gloves to head out into the forest and help forgetful Mrs Winter find the larder key.
It is a little gem of a show, wrapping the audience in a fairy-tale world: first the snug cottage kitchen, then the magical but slightly scary forest, where treats lurk behind tiny secret doors and a talking snowman tells a story. The six-year-olds I accompanied were transported, finding their brave inner selves to venture into the woods and watching with some regret as Mr and Mrs Winter (Matthew Blake and Fran Moulds, engaging, but not patronising) shut their front door.
The Discover Centre is dedicated to storytelling, and the power and joy of narrative is also the theme at the Tricycle Theatre for a staging of The Arabian Nights. Here good storytelling becomes a matter of life or death, as Scheherezade (Adura Onashile), new wife to the brutal King Shahryar (Sandy Grierson), staves off the dawn execution her predecessors have suffered by spinning yarns, until finally the king realises he cannot live without her and the insight, entertainment and wisdom that her wealth of stories brings him.
In Mary Zimmerman’s dramatisation and Lu Kemp’s supple production, the show grows like a set of Chinese boxes, opening up story within story within story. Zimmerman avoids the most familiar tales, bringing us a wide range of fables, some disturbing, some beautiful, some bawdy, as she weaves a complex carpet of narratives that demonstrates the richness of Arabic culture.
There is a rather muted air to the show, which never quite escapes the fact that linear narrative makes for somewhat flat drama. But again a versatile cast slips in and out of character, the bustling finale is inspired and the show, with its many Islamic references, is an interesting and hopeful choice for Christmas.