Preview: Children’s Christmas theatre

For many families Christmas is the one time of the year they make a trip to the theatre – but there’s so much more on offer than panto, finds Kevin Bourke

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“We all love the occasional sing-along and bit of tinsel at Christmas but if this is the one time of the year that families go to the theatre, then we want the experience to be fun and frivolity but also more than that, to connect audiences with something meaningful,” says Nina Hajiyianni, artistic director of Action Transport Theatre. Its version of The Princess And The Pea at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre is set against the backdrop of the global refugee crisis, as more and more theatres avoid over-sugared pantos to embrace seasonal storytelling relevant to young people and families in the modern world.

“We try to find proper, inspiring family shows all year round, but especially at this time of year, when we get the opportunity to produce our own show, we make sure that it is completely embedded in modern culture and the diversity of the society that is all around us,” agrees Liz O’Neill of Z-arts, Manchester’s specialist venue for contemporary family arts.

“In our version of Snow Queen, Kai is a bit of a genius coding boy and he’s created his own gaming worlds. We’re using a lot of cutting-edge digital technology in the show, with gaming elements projected on screen, so there’s an undercurrent about online safety, an awareness that, sometimes, bad people can come through the computer. That’s how the Snow Queen comes into the world, and lures Kai into this other world.

“It’s also important to us that we’re reflecting the diversity of the modern family, so in our version Gerda is adopted and Kai is fostered.”

Look across the region and you’ll find many theatres agreeing that you can actually do something at Christmas with a bit of heart and soul, giving fairytales a new twist or looking beyond our borders.

Waterside Arts Centre in Sale and Horse+Bamboo bring the Moomins to the UK stage for the first time with a new adaptation of Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter, while Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre offers a spectacular Yorkshire re-invention of Snow White, including a brass band of magical miners, as Tell Tale Hearts collaborates with aerial theatre pioneers Pif–Paf.

In Sheffield, Slung Low brings its interactive theatre genius to Emergency Story Penguin, in the Crucible’s Studio, about a penguin who needs to be saved by a song-powered submarine, while 59 Minutes To Save Christmas takes children around the Crucible to save Christmas from naughty elves and even make a Christmas decoration.
At Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the main house production, Stephen Sondheim’s musical exploration of fairytales Into The Woods (with Maxine Peake as the voice of Giant), is complemented by a new family-friendly Studio show The Ballad Of Rudy, about a jazz-loving reindeer.

The first Christmas show at Home in Manchester is an adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, a much-loved book on the continent but less well-known here.
“That’s very true – it’s not Harry Potter – but I trust this story,” says director Walter Meierjohann. “There are 10 really very different characters, and it’s got a whole emotional side about a missing mother and a single parent raising a daughter. At the same time, you’ve got the love for books, which I think is a really positive message in our time.”

In Leeds, James Brining, director of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at West Yorkshire Playhouse, also thinks that a successful family show needn’t simply be all about spectacle and singsongs.

“I’ve got to know that the piece is about celebrating creativity and imagination and the connection between human beings,” he says.
“I hope that the way we tell the story will be about those kinds of values – not just about a flying car.”

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