Christmas shows for children
From animated pancakes to traditional panto – classic fairytales to Julia Donaldson favourites, there’s a host of family entertainment around north London this Christmas
Two lost children in the woods follow a trail of breadcrumbs to a bewitching house made of sweets. It’s a classic opening to a well-loved fairy tale and the team behind the National Theatre’s previous hits The Cat in the Hat and Beauty and the Beast are following up their past success with a magical production of Hansel and Gretel.
Directors Katie Mitchell and Lucy Kirkwood apply their creativity to “an enchanting and eerie” show for seven to 10-year-olds which runs at the Cottesloe (December 7-January 26).
Closer to home, Jacksons Lane in Highgate also brings a traditional fairy tale to the stage as the “inescapably eccentric” children’s theatre company behind last year’s sellout The Enormous Turnip returns with an updated version of The Elves and The Shoemaker. (Until January 3, 020 8341 4421)
Stuff and Nonsense sets the story in contemporary London where Sam Lacey makes shoes in his kitchen workshop and tries to sell them online. His creations are so bad that no-one wants them until one night when two tiny visitors climb through the window and start cutting and stitching.
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This enchanting show includes music, comedy, amazing dancing shoes and two mischievous elf puppets created by a puppet maestro who has worked with Walllace and Gromit creators Aardman Animations (December 8-January 3, ages three upwards).
Based at Jacksons Lane is one of the UK’s top children’s theatre companies Tall Stories, which rose to fame in 2001 after former publishing assistant Toby Mitchell spotted the potential of Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo for stage adaptation.
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Co-directors Mitchell and Olivia Jacobs have several shows running in the UK including The Gruffalo at the Artsdepot in North Finchley (December 8-January 6, ages three upwards, 020-8369 5454, www.artsdepot.co.uk).
Their critically praised Room On The Broom is at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue (until January 13, ages three to eight, 08444 124661).
At The Roundhouse, there is a new adaptation of US children’s author Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Wouldn’t Stop Screaming.
All their shows are marked by inventive staging, fabulous costumes and original songs and make a virtue of creative use of props and small casts.
Jacobs says that, although their productions have been performed in Poland, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai, Canada and the US, every show is directed by either her or Mitchell.
“It’s very important to maintain quality. If you are seeing these productions, you know the script hasn’t been farmed out to someone else.”
She didn’t set out to direct for children but says: “I wanted to tell great stories imaginatively and the shows I was creating seemed to appeal to a family audience – that’s where my heart took me.
“I love that kids respond so quickly. Grown-ups have learned to sit and be polite but with kids you know five minutes in if they are bored and you have lost them. We often go back into rehearsals to rework bits where it wasn’t catching their imagination.”
Jacobs is unsurprisingly down on “patronising” children’s theatre but believes the genre is currently extremely healthy with a boom in quality work.
“I like to think we were at the forefront of that but it means now we’ve got to up our game.”
The Roundhouse show is based on Snicket’s story about a Hanukkah latke who runs screaming from the hot pan past various Christmas decorations. They each ask him who he is and boast of their superiority. Forced to explain his own history and tradition, he learns to be proud of where he comes from.
“Lemony’s style is weird, quirky, bizarre and brilliant. It’s about a potato pancake but also about finding your place in the world with a really nice message that everyone can fit in somewhere,” says Jacobs, who directs a five-strong cast who each play a variety of instruments.
Hampstead resident Neal Foster is another pioneer of children’s theatre. He founded the Birmingham Stage Company 20 years ago on a shoestring and it has gone on to stage hit shows including The Jungle Book, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach.
Foster, who raised the funds to bankroll his first shows by persuading celebrities such as Dame Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman to give interviews in front of a paying audience, also spotted the dramatic potential of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories – the longest running children’s show in West End history.
Between performing in Horrible Histories – which runs over Christmas at The Garrick Theatre – he directs Tom’s Midnight Garden at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Philippa Pearce’s 1958 classic about a boy who travels back in time to a Victorian garden via the grandfather clock in the hallway has been adapted by the “the nation’s children’s playwright” David Wood.
“I think it’s even more powerful than the book because you are able to dramatise certain moments on stage and because Wood is very good at understanding what engages children and where the drama lies in a story,” he says.
As Tom straddles two worlds, he strikes up a friendship with Hattie in the Victorian garden but each time he sees her she seems a different age. “This is a profound mystery story about the nature of time itself and about friendship, love and loss and what it is to grow old – are we the same people we were when we were young?” says Foster.
Tom’s Midnight Garden features music, illusion and is suitable for ages four upwards (from December 12-January 19, 020-7388 8822, www.thebloomsbury.com).
At the Tricycle Theatre, for children aged 10 and over, is a “punky” contemporary re-imagining of The Arabian Nights.
Using an international cast, choreography and music composed by Iranian indie band Take It Easy Hospital, director Lu Kemp aims for a cool, magical, humorous and dark take on the tale of a young woman in Baghdad who marries King Shahryar but must save her life through the power of storytelling.
For three years, the king has taken vengeance for being cuckolded by an unfaithful wife by marrying a new bride every night and killing her in the morning. Determined to stop the bloodshed, Scheherazade uses the only weapons she has – her wit and imagination weaving tales of seduction, silliness and suspense.
Kemp sees echoes of the rebelliousness of Pussy Riot in the way Scheherazade uses her art to highlight a problem and ask questions: “This is darker than other versions. It’s so often done as a children’s show and, although it totally works for children, the fact is that this man has been murdering woman for three years and one young woman goes up against him. I hope this story of women who stand up for themselves will appeal to contemporary young adults and teenagers.”
Those who prefer traditional panto should head to the Shaw Theatre in Euston Road where Beauty And The Beast stars TV presenter and ex-Big Brother inmate Alison Hammond as a fairy who raps. Oliver Mellor, the dishy doctor from Coronation Street, plays Buffo the Jester, and Rodney Ward plays the dame, Madame Fifi. Expect audience participation, contemporary pop songs, comedy and lots of gags (December 6-30, www.shaw-theatre.com.
Crouch End Players always put on a great show and this year, to mark Charles Dickens’ bicentennial, they are staging an adaptation of A Christmas Carol full of festive cheer, singing and ghosts galore.
It runs at the Territorial Army Centre Hall at 2 Priory Road, Crouch End (December 12-15. 7.30pm, �10 from Officedog, Topsfield Parade or online from wegottickets.com).
The always excellent Little Angel Puppet theatre in Islington stages two shows for Christmas. Dogs Don’t Do Ballet (December 5-January 27, for ages two to six) tells the story of Biff, a small dog with a huge personality who likes moonlight, music and walking on his tiptoes. Dreaming the impossible dream of becoming a ballerina, it uses comedy, well-loved ballet music and beautiful puppets.
For ages six and up, there is an adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s well-loved story Pinocchio. Amazingly, this is Little Angel’s first ever production of the classic tale of woodcarver Geppetto who makes a boy puppet who steals his heart, then goes missing. Bookings on 020-7226 1787 or www.littleangeltheatre.com.
In the West End...
CBeebies favourite Little Charley Bear is on stage at the Ambassador’s Theatre from December 5-24, for ages up to seven years.
The magical festive adventure sees Little Charley Bear get ready for Christmas with friends Caramel, Bellarina, Frozo, Midge, Nibblit, Rivet. Featuring songs, puppetry, dancing, games, and snow, the bear looks for his lost presents, finds a fairy for the tree, hides from polar bears and goes in search of Santa
Bookings: www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk / 08448 112 334
Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man about a stick who gets carried away from the family tree by a playful dog and struggles to get home is live on stage at Leicester Square Theatre for a seven week season until January 6. Featuring live music and an appearance by Father Christmas Scamp theatre company’s show is suitable for ages 3 and up. Box Office: 08448 733433.
One of the longest running Christmas shows is the beautiful ballet based on Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman featuring Howard Blake’s much loved score.
It runs at The Peacock Theatre from November 28 until January 6 and tells the story of a boy who goes on a marvellous adventure with his snowman, featuring dancing penguins, magical reindeer and the spine-tingling song Walking In The Air.
Runs November 28 to January 6. Box office: 0844 412 4322 / www.sadlerswells.com
Back by popular demand is Slava’s Snowshow at the Royal Festival Hall from December 17 until January 7.
Led by legendary clown Slava Polunin it is an internationally acclaimed spectacle that combines clowning and a dream-like world of images and visual gags that ends with a theatrical finale which leaves the audience knee deep in snow.
Bookings 0844 8750073 or www.southbankcentre.co.uk, ages eight and up.