It’s official. The first festive ads are on the telly, reminding us of the dwindling time left to buy that perfect gift, and the high street has dragged out last year’s limp tinsel.
Christmas is coming.
Which for many people means the traditional family outing to the theatre, and for many regional venues, it’s the annual panto that keeps them afloat.
Most London theatres too like to lay on something seasonally-appropriate to cater to the Christmas crowd, especially now that old school pantomime has snuck back into fashion, predominantly as a result of the Old Vic’s recent casting coup with Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twanky in their production of Aladdin. Playing to packed houses for the last two years, it’s been one of Kevin Spacey’s more successful creative decisions since taking over the artistic directorship of the South Bank landmark.
There’ll be no third run for Aladdin this year though, which is perhaps part of the reason why the Barbican has chosen this year to get in on the panto act. Having said that, it’s hardly a cash-in given that the Barb have entrusted their Christmas show to one Mark Ravenhill. Given that Ravenhill’s past writing credits include Shopping and Fucking and the current c-word flecked tale of rampant artistic jealousy pool (no water), this is either an inspired decision or a decidedly foolish one. Still Ravenhill’s Dick Whittington and His Cat is being billed as a family friendly show, with the cosy casting to back that up that claim.
Which is not something that can easily be said of the National’s festive offering. Melly Still’s production of Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy was a big success at the theatre last Christmas, despite some feeling that its dark content, all tortured orphans and dead babies, was a bit much for a family crowd and the National itself advising against the under-12s coming to see the production. Still it proved popular enough to return for a second run, and will be playing in the Olivier from December through to February.
The Lyric Hammersmith has a strong reputation for innovative family fare at this time of year, with both Ben Hopkins’ The Magic Carpet and Phillip Pullman’s The Firework-Maker’s Daughter proving popular with critics and audinecs alike and proving that family-friendly theatre can (and should) be as entrancing for adults as it is for children. This year they’ve lined up a similarly left-field but promising offering, a stage version of Richard Adams tale of rebel rabbits Watership Down, also directed by Melly Still.
In the Trafalgar Studios’ intimate smaller space, innovative company Horla return with one of their now regular Christmas shows. A Feast of Tales from Around the World,’ Grimms mines the festive legends of Eastern Europe and further away for material, to produce something agreeably different. More traditional fare can be found at the Peacock Theatre, Sadler’s Wells sister venue on Kingsway, where The Snowman will once again be taking flight. Sadler’s Wells itself will be re-staging Matthew Bourne’s enormously popular all-male Swan Lake. Even the Theatre Royal Stratford East has a lively version of Snow Queen, by Hope Massiah.
So whether you’re a once-a-year visitor to the West End looking for something that will appeal to all ages, or theatre-regular in search of alternative festive fare, something is bound to appeal. And hell, if a bit of Oh yes he is. Oh no he isn’t is the only thing that will cut it, there’s plenty of solid traditional pantomimes out there, many a short hop from London on the train. I hear the New Wimbledon Theatre even have the Fonz in their production of Peter Pan