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Is it a Bird? Is it a Car? No, it's pounds.

Looking like a million dollars isn't good enough these days. The most fantasmagorical stage musical in the history of everything - which is the official subtitle of the West End's new Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - must do better. This show has got to looklike pounds 6.2m, for such are its record-breaking production costs - chitty being the operative word. You can't help sighing at the innocence of little Jeremy and Jemima - the pre-Second World War tots in Ian Fleming's motorised family fantasy - as theyassure their impoverished daddy, Michael Ball's Caractacus Potts, that he can purchase the rusting old banger they adore for 40 shillings.

The producers of this show include Bob and Harvey Weinstein (of Miramax) and Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli (of various 007 movies). So one should point out that throwing money at theatre, mogul-style, rarely renders it truly magical. It's alsoworth noting that Fleming' s story teaches us that we don't need megabucks: our fine four-fendered friend is restored with tender loving care and elbow grease.

However, obviously a bob or two can come in handy if you want to get airborne. Anthony Ward's sets are spectacular and mostly jolly. The windmill where Caractacus resides amid his cranky inventions is a whirring mass of Heath Robinsonian cogs, pulleysand pistons. And the vintage auto is a dazzling beast. I'm not sure of the model - maybe a Recoupe - but there's a hint of dragon about its silver pointy bonnet and unfurling wings. And take-off, when it finally comes, is breathtaking. Hoisted aloft onan almost-invisible hydraulic arm, the Potts and their travelling companion, Miss Truly Scrumptious, go for a spin right out over the audience. Children squealed with delight and the 10-year- old next to me didn't mind this adaptation's divergences fromthe classic 1968 movie, either.

However, too many gimmicky special effects are shoved in and the big dance numbers, though nattily choreographed, stall Caractacus's rescue mission to Vulgaria, realm of the villainous Childcatcher. The Sherman brothers' original songs are often merediversions too. Still, Nichola McAuliffe is having a blast as sneering Baroness Bomburst. Emma Williams is an assured Truly, and Ball, though anodyne, is a reassuringly loving father. Jeremy Sams' new book could do without contemporary quips about Marksand Spencer, but he and director Adrian Noble inject dry wit to counter sentimentality.

More seriously, they highlight that Vulgaria is akin to Germany during the Holocaust - Richard O'Brien's skeletal Childcatcher flaunting a wisp of Hitleresque hair. Also there are sound modern role models here: sassy females and happy alternativefamilies. Destined to be a hit, probably.

Contrary to some critics' predictions, the RSC hasn't fallen into complete disarray while Noble, its artistic director, has been otherwise engaged. The company's conversion of Camden's Roundhouse for a season of Shakespeare's late romances is thrilling.Inside the industrial brick rotunda, you discover a towering, rough wood stadium - like a steep operating theatre or gladiatorial coliseum (with some promenaders encircling the stage). Matthew Warchus's production of The Winter' s Tale intelligentlyexploits the space. Anastasia Hille's excellent Hermione is metaphorically thrown to the lions when put on trial by her jealous husband, for Douglas Hodge's Leontes prowls around while she stands chained by her ankle.

Besides such symbolic moments, the translation of Sicilia to interwar America with Hodge playing a shorn-headed Mafia-type fits with Leontes' patriarchal brutality. He goes crazy with intense conviction and Hille is bitterly dignified even when shakingwith grief. Myra Lucretia Taylor is also magnificent as Paulina, the housekeeper who fiestily argues for liberty and justice and haunts about Leontes' mansion like his guilty conscience.

Unfortunately, this production goes off the boil. In Bohemia, the next generation - Lauren Ward's Perdita and Alan Turkington's Florizel - are bland. The festive Country and Western band can't compensate for that. The final family reunion, with Hermioneresurrected, also needs sharper focus to be either full of heavenly forgiveness or interestingly problematic.

Redemption is on offer but seems a peculiarly twisted notion in The Night Heron. Jez Mojo Butterworth's new play unfolds in the not-quite- Godforsaken fens of contemporary Cambridgeshire. A Byzantine Jesus stares from a huge photocopied iconostasis,pinned up in the barn where Griffin and Jess (burly Ray Winstone and scrawny Karl Johnson) are living hand to mouth. Jess is terrified of demons, egged on by a local cult leader. Our duo, we glean, are also ex-gardeners exiled from Corpus ChristiCollege's orchards for some unspeakable misdemeanour. A menacing lodger moves in: a jailbird calling herself Bolla (Jessica Stevenson). A savage mugger starts targeting the marshes and a golden- haired young man, loins swathed, materialises on the barnfloor. But when the day of reckoning comes, confessions and lies are so confused it seems criminals survive unreformed while (maybe) the wrong man dies for others' sins, hanging himself in despair.

The Night Heron, directed by Ian Rickson, is a bizarre mix of the confounded, the clumsy, and the extraordinarily compelling. Winstone and Johnson's earthy accents are so broad, the play initially could be in Double Dutch. You tune in but, ultimately,whodunnit or rather whodunnwhatunwhy remains murky. The Christian symbolism grows heavy- handed and the combo of naturalism and crude lowlife caricatures can be uncomfortable - particularly when Stevenson's Bolla barks every line like a pea-brained pitbull.

And yet there's a slow burn here. Butterworth's characters are almost surreally unpredictable. Though you can spot influences from Orton and Pinter to Tarantino and Philip Ridley, the plot embraces highly idiosyncratic digressions (Cub Scouts and poetrycompetitions) and the tone veers between the comical and the sinister very unnervingly.

Worth a look if not its weight in gold.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

`Chitty Chitty Bang Bang': Palladium, London W1 (0870 890 1108), booking to 28 Sept; `The Winter's Tale': Roundhouse, London NW1 (0870 609 1110), to 19 June; `Night Heron': Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 11 May Kate Bassett, The critics: THEATRE; -Is it a bird, is it a car? No, it's pounds. , Independent on Sunday, 04-21-2002, pp 9.

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The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996