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Our top 10 alternative Christmas shows (not a pantomime in sight)

Tim van Eyken, Sienna Kelly and Rhys Ifans in A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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1. A Christmas Carol, The Old Vic (and elsewhere)

November 20-January 20

The rattling of Jacob Marley’s chains threatens to drown out the peel of jingle bells this season, with productions of A Christmas Carol staged up and down the land. The Old Vic’s atmospheric staging in-the-round, with an adaptation by Jack Thorne and a brilliantly spiky Ebenezer Scrooge played by Rhys Ifans, is our pick of the bunch. Outside London, David Edgar has adapted the Dickens classic for the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Phil Davis as the old miser who undergoes a Damascene-like Christmas conversion. There are takes on the story in Dundee, Scarborough, Leicester and the West End’s Lyceum Theatre, but another that really caught the eye was an immersive production staged in the State Apartments at Windsor Castle where Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret put on their own Christmas pantomimes during the Second World War.

A Christmas Carol review at Old Vic, London – ‘incredibly atmospheric’

2. Beauty and the Beast, Chichester Festival Theatre

December 16-31

Following the success of Peter Pan last year, the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre is staging a new adaptation of the classic fairytale of a cursed prince who needs to learn to love and be loved. The question is: by whom? Anna Ledwich – whose production of Four Minutes Twelve Seconds at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs was nominated for an Olivier award in 2015 – has adapted the story, with music and lyrics by Richard Taylor. Given this year’s success of the Hollywood blockbuster, starring Emma Watson, the show could be a programming masterstroke.

3. The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

November 30-January 13

There may be no real canines in this adaptation of Dodie Smith’s much-loved novel, but director Tessa Walker has pledged to make it feel like there are, with the patter of numerous paws coming from puppets operated by the cast.

Read our review of The Hundred and One Dalmations

Adapted by Birmingham-born Debbie Isitt – who has another show on this list – the story follows Dalmatians Pongo and Missis, who set off on the trail of Cruella de Vil after their copious offspring go missing. Walker will hope it delivers similar success to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe she staged at the Rep two years ago.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians: Birmingham Rep’s dazzling feat of canine puppetry


4. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

December 1-January 27

Director Sally Cookson has a knack of bringing magical worlds to the stage with shows that explore the emotional heart of classic children’s tales. After conjuring up Never Never Land in the National Theatre’s Peter Pan, she is putting Narnia on to the WYP’s Quarry stage, the first time it has been configured in the round.

Interview with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s designer Rae Smith

The show was created through a ‘shared-exploration’ of CS Lewis’ novel and the look was designed by Rae Smith, who won Olivier and Tony awards for War Horse. With the characters going from wartime Britain to the frozen wastelands of Narnia, Cookson says she wants to “ignite the audience’s imagination”.

5. The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales, Bristol Old Vic

November 30-January 14

Adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen stories, Emma Rice and Joel Horwood’s production – which debuted at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year – has arrived in Bristol. The Stage’s reviewer said the show strikes a “careful balance between joyous tomfoolery and inescapable sadness” as the main character – the production uses a puppet – strikes her matches to keep warm, in doing so conjuring up a spirit who tells her tales from Thumbelina to The Princess and the Pea. Another celebrated production of the same story, reworked by Arthur Pita, returns for its fourth year at Sadler’s Wells this Christmas in London.

The Little Matchgirl and Other Happier Tales review at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – ‘knowing and irreverent’

6. Nativity! The Musical, touring

October 20-January 6

Unashamedly bringing the “sparkle and shine” of the Christmas film starring Martin Freeman to the stage, Nativity! is the tale of an under-performing school trying to attract Hollywood interest for its festive play. Adapted and directed by Debbie Isitt, who wrote the Nativity! film trilogy, it promises “mayhem in Bethlehem” (Bethle-mayhem?) and a debut stage appearance by The X Factor’s Louis Walsh during the London leg of the tour. Currently in Plymouth, it heads to London’s Eventim Apollo before finishing in Leeds. The cast includes Simon Lipkin as Mr Poppy, an alumnus from Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey? no less.

Nativity! The Musical review at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – ‘warm and likeable’

7. Pinocchio, National Theatre, London

December 1 – April 7

The ingredients are there: a much-loved Disney classic, director John Tiffany – whose back catalogue includes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – and Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book for Matilda the Musical. The National has promised a sumptuous visual feast to bring to life the story of the puppet who wants to be a real boy.

Interview with John Tiffany

It has songs from the original film, including When You Wish Upon a Star, while the puppets are overseen by Running Wild’s Toby Olie and Bob Crowley, the third time they have worked together after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet and a staging of The Little Mermaid in the Netherlands, Moscow and Tokyo.


8. Thirty Christmases, New Diorama, London

December 4-23

Dubbed a “rebellious comedy for grown-ups”, this alternative Christmas show features the creative team, as well as music, from comedy band Jonny and the Baptists. The play comes to New Diorama after a run at Oxford’s Old Fire Station last year and follows brother and sister Jonny (Jonny Donahoe) and Rachel – played by Austentatious’ Rachel Parris – who have not had a good Christmas in years. This may not be one for the kids (with songs such as Everyone’s Having Reindeer Sex) but it is all about the meaning of family at Christmas. The show is produced by Olivier award and Fringe First-winning company Supporting Wall, whose work includes Bull at the Young Vic.

Thirty Christmases review at the Old Fire Station, Oxford – ‘warm, touching and funny’


9. Wind in the Willows, Sherman Theatre, Cardiff

December 1-30

The Sherman is usually a safe bet to provide a strong Christmas show, and this year it is putting on The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame’s story of Rat, Mole and Toad adventuring out beyond the river bank is adapted by Mike Kenny and directed by Lee Lyford. This follows last year’s small but perfectly formed version of The Borrowers, about the family that lives below the floorboards, which The Stage described as a “quieter take on Christmas entertainment but… curiously beautiful”.


10. The Wizard of Oz, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

December 8-January 20

Dorothy ain’t in Kansas anymore, this Christmas she’s in Sheffield. Heading off down the yellow brick road as Dorothy is Gabrielle Brooks, who previously appeared in the theatre’s musical hit Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The classic story about a girl transported to a magical land following a freak storm was written by L Frank Baum, with music and lyrics – including Over the Rainbow – by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg. The production includes children from Sheffield as the munchkins and “local dogs” taking on the key role of Toto. New artistic director Robert Hastie has said the musical means a lot to him as it’s about coming home, just as he has done to Yorkshire.

Interview with Robert Hastie

Top 10 pantomime picks for 2017

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