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Critics’ Christmas theatre picks 2016: best shows to book this festive season

Yammel Rodriguez in La Soiree at the Spiegeltent, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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As the radar of nationwide festive theatre glows in front them, The Stage’s fearless top gun critics – Natasha Tripney and Mark Shenton – aim their recommendation missiles at the finest shows on offer over the Christmas and new year period…

Best comedy: Peter Pan Goes Wrong – Apollo Theatre, London

Mischief Theatre Company – a group of students who met when they trained at LAMDA – created The Play That Goes Wrong (which has gone very right at the Duchess Theatre, now in its third year, and is heading to Broadway this spring). But sequel Peter Pan Goes Wrong, a riotous mock-pantomime in which everything that could go wrong does – spectacularly, is even better. MS

Best children’s show: Duckie – Southbank Centre, London

Le Gateau Chocolat in Duckie. Photo: Manuel Vason/DARC.Collective
Le Gateau Chocolat in Duckie. Photo: Manuel Vason/DARC.Collective

Cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat – and his magnificent baritone – is currently presenting his new solo show Icons at Soho Theatre. During the day he’s also performing Duckie, a family-friendly cabaret reworking of The Ugly Duckling at the Southbank Centre. It’s Le Gateau’s first work for children and it’s playing until December 24. NT

Best seasonal alternative: La Soiree – Spiegeltent, Leicester Square

If panto isn’t your bag, the brightest festive alternative is La Soiree, this year installed in the Spiegeltent in Leicester Square, a small-ring human circus variety show that’s previously had London seasons at the Roundhouse, Hippodrome and South Bank. Old favourites such as Ursula Martinez, Captain Frodo and the English Gents are joined each time by new acts, so there’s always something new to see. MS

Best new opening: Art – Old Vic, London

This year’s London theatre openings are heading right to the wire, opening within days of Christmas itself. While the musical Rent just received a 20th anniversary revival at London’s St James Theatre, Yasmina Reza’s Art – also first seen in English that year – is also revived by original director Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic, with a cast that comprises Rufus Swell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter, opening December 20. MS

Best new musical: Dreamgirls – Savoy Theatre/School of Rock – New London Theatre, London

Aber Riley in Dreamgirls. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg
Aber Riley in Dreamgirls. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

This autumn has brought two terrific musicals from Broadway – Dreamgirls, 35 years after its Broadway premiere, in a wonderful new staging; and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, School of Rock, which premiered in New York last year as his first new show to open there ahead of London in the 45 years since Jesus Christ Superstar. MS

Best dysfunctional Christmas show: Thirty Christmases – Old Fire Station, Oxford

“Jewish socialist atheist” Jonny Donahoe’s musical Christmas show, Thirty Christmases, performed with his Jonny and the Baptists band-mate Paddy Gevers and comedian Rachel Parris, is “a warm, funny and touching” look at dysnfunctional family Christmases, according to our four-star review. NT

Best musical revival: The Bodyguard – Dominion Theatre, London

There are plenty of jukebox shows playing on both sides of the Atlantic, from the soon-closing Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! to Thriller Live. But the biggest surprise is just how good The Bodyguard is – based on a film that starred the late, great Whitney Houston and featuring a catalogue of her biggest hits. Beverley Knight, who took over the role created by Heather Headley in the show’s original London run at the Adelphi Theatre, has returned for the revival at the Dominion Theatre. MS

Best one-person show: Living With the Lights On – Young Vic, London

Mark Lockyer in Living With the Lights On. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
Mark Lockyer in Living With the Lights On. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Simon Callow is doing A Christmas Carol yet again this Christmas (at the Arts Theatre), but the one-man show to see is Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre actor Mark Lockyer in his extraordinary personal show, Living With the Lights On, about his own battle with bipolar disorder. Honest, unflinching, moving and inspiring. MS

Best long-runner: The Phantom of the Opera – Her Majesty’s Theatre, London

The West End is full of long-running shows, from the inevitable The Mousetrap (65 years and counting) to Les Miserables (the longest-running musical in West End history, having first transferred there from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican base in 1985). This year Lloyd Webber’s magnum opus, The Phantom of the Opera, celebrated its 30th anniversary at Her Majesty’s Theatre – and it is still theatrical magic. MS

Best musical outside London: Sweet Charity – Royal Exchange, Manchester/Annie Get Your Gun – Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

Two more welcome alternatives to panto are terrific Christmas revivals of two Broadway classics, both of which were co-written by the dazzling wordsmith Dorothy Fields: Annie Get Your Gun (the 1946 show she co-wrote with brother Herbert, to Irving Berlin’s score) and Sweet Charity (1966, for which she wrote lyrics to Cy Coleman’s tunes). MS

Best blast of realism: Love – National Theatre, London

Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk in Love. Photo: Sarah Lee
Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk in Love. Photo: Sarah Lee

Alexander Zeldin’s devastating new devised production Love explores the everyday life of people living in temporary accommodation in the run up to Christmas. Meticulously performed, it shows the realities of poverty, sanctions and benefit cuts. It’s a hard watch and a manipulative one at times; it’s certainly not unproblematic, but its power is considerable. NT

Last Chance to see: In the Heights – King’s Cross Theatre, London

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton may be the biggest sensation now playing on Broadway, but before it heads here to open at the Victoria Palace next October, you should see his earlier Broadway entry In the Heights, which provides an exhilarating introduction to his musical style. Drew McOnie’s choreography also sizzles. MS

 

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