Joy to the world

This is a great Christmas for family theatre - and not just for the children

What's necessary in a Christmas show? Entertainment, naturally. A feel-good message, perhaps, and something visually arresting to gawp at. Children's theatre is particularly strong this Christmas, but then it should be. If there was ever a season to welcome tots in round-collared coats into the foyer and to hear delighted giggles emanating from the auditorium, it's this one.

So much has already been said about War Horse (National Theatre, London SE1, until 14 February) that it seems rather late in the day to trumpet its appeal. However, this adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo novel about a young man in the First World War searching through the guts and gore of the Western Front for his beloved steed is fantastically effective, largely due to the astonishing puppetry from Handspring, who convey horses, toddlers and birds with virtuosity.

It is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, who have magically transformed the text into a fully formed piece of visually compelling drama. Children, probably from about nine years, can follow the plot quite easily, and for the grown-ups, it's one colossal weepie. When I saw it, two women I was sitting next to could hardly contain themselves, and started blubbing almost as soon as Joe, the equine hero, trotted on to the vast round of the Olivier's stage. I found it fabulous to watch but a bit relentlessly sentimental, possibly because of the snuffling that seemed to echo around the auditorium the whole night.

Down the road at the Young Vic (London SE1), the moral sentiments of Dickens have been tested by the South African theatre company Isango/Portobello in its charming and moving production of A Christmas Carol - Ikrismas Kherol (until 19 January), directed by Mark Dornford-May and updated to the gold mines and townships of contemporary South Africa. From the bravura start, where we are transported into the clanging bowels of a mine, to the astonishing reworking of Scrooge into a mean businesswoman (Pauline Malefane), this provocative repositioning of the Dickens classic into a meditation on the problems of modern South Africa is breathtaking.

Rather than a kitsch Christmas card, this production updates and repositions what Scrooge, Marley and Tiny Tim (here, Tiny Thembisa) were telling us anyway; "ignorance and want", the crux of South Africa's agonies, now bestride that nation as they once bestrode the Victorian slums of London. The production blends humour, wonderful wellington-slapping dance, stunning costumes and the formidable sound of African singing into a 90-minute production that thrills the spirit and provokes tears that are possibly more pertinent, if crying can be judged in terms of social relevance.

But why plump for tears? For full-bellied laughter, I urge you to take someone, everyone, or anyone to see Men of Steel (until 6 January at the Soho Theatre, London W1), an anarchic puppet show performed by three Australians. The gag is that the Men of Steel are gingerbread-men cookie cutters, who speak a sort of nonsense language and inhabit a tabletop world peopled by daft milkshakes, scary whisks and portable ovens that fly around to the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My four children, aged between ten and three, fell about with unstoppable laughter at the innocent antics of the Steel Men, who incorporate key lavatorial elements into their shtick such as burping, playing with dog food and urinating from the top of a broccoli forest. That the first three rows of the audience are given plastic aprons to wear at the beginning of the 50-minute show says it all.

But it really is funny, and hugely skilful; afterwards, I tried to do a version of it chez Millard with our pastry cutters, but the result was rather lame, as my children would say. I asked our eldest, who has seen both War Horse and Men of Steel, which she would recommend, and she unhesitatingly went for the latter (it's also quite a lot cheaper). Moralising and sentiment are fine, but there is nothing wrong with crying with laughter in the theatre; and that, dear reader, is my valedictory suggestion to you in this, my final theatre column.

Also recommended

The Seagull
New London Theatre, London WC2
Full-throttle production of Chekhov classic, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Frances Barber.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1
Radical reworking by Kneehigh. There's even a real rabbit.

Cambridge Theatre, London WC2
Ten years old but the Fosse-inspired choreography is as sharp as ever.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007