Preview: Christmas theatre

Christmas theatre needn’t be warm and cuddly, says Richard Smirke, rounding up spooky theatre and more

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The vast majority of festive theatre falls into two categories: traditional pantomime and child-friendly Christmas shows that typically feature cute furry animals, Santa Claus or a combination of the two. 

There’s undoubtedly a place for both types of entertainment in the cultural calendar, but for adults free of parenting responsibilities there is also a strong selection of thought-provoking, provocative and entertaining drama being staged throughout the north this Christmas.

One of the more chilling productions on offer is The Haunting Of Hill House at Liverpool’s Playhouse theatre (until 16 Jan). Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, the atmospheric thriller is set in an eerie mansion where three strangers – bohemian artist Theodora, the reclusive Eleanor and Luke, the young heir to Hill House – are invited to join the mysterious Dr Montague, who hopes to find evidence of supernatural activity within the building’s historic walls.

“It’s a really interesting book. It’s a horror story but at the centre of it there’s kind of a Tennessee Williams play hiding in there. It’s really about one woman’s mental breakdown, in a sense, and it’s in that vein of psychological horror,” says writer Anthony Neilson, whose previous theatre credits include The Wonderful World Of Dissocia and The Night Before Christmas.

Like the original novel, Neilson’s adaptation is set in late 1950s America and retains the same sense of slow-building unease, tension and suspense of the source text.

“It’s very much about things caught out of the corner of your eye that don’t quite make sense. It’s not about big shocks and scares,” explains the writer, who warns audiences not to expect a “rollercoaster” type thrill ride like The Woman In Black.

“Productions like that, as fun as they are, you do tend to forget about them fairly. This will resonate and linger with people afterwards in a much more real way. It’s not as jumpy, but it is infinitely scarier.”

Winter chills are also on offer at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, where Rebecca Vaughan will bring to life three seasonal ghost stories with her acclaimed Christmas Gothic show (18-19 Dec), which promises to “scintillate the gooseflesh for dark Christmas nights.”

Arguably no less terrifying, at least for some tastes, is the Von Trapp family, who will be warbling their uplifting anti-Nazi rhetoric at Salford’s Lowry theatre (until 2 Jan). The Voice’s Lucy O’Byrne and TV actor Gray O’Brien (Peak Practice/Coronation Street) star in this new production of the classic stage musical The Sound Of Music , which coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Julie Andrews film.

Across the Pennines, Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre plays host to a lavish new production of Show Boat. Set against the distinctly unseasonal steamy backdrop of America’s Deep South at the turn of the 20th century, this sweeping and timeless musical stars Michael Xavier as the dashing gambler Gaylord Ravenal and Gina Beck as the lovestruck Magnolia Hawks (until 23 Jan).

Alternatively, if self-improvement is what you’re after, check out How To Be Better at Manchester’s Contact Theatre. Devised by Common Wealth in conjunction with Contact Young Company, this original seasonal show explores the modern day pressures and complexities of Christmas while asking: “Why do we strive to be better at this time of year?” (16-19 December).

Also showing

All Our Friends Are Dead

Hull Truck Theatre, 19 Dec

The Bodyguard,

Manchester Palace Theatre, until 9 Jan 

The Nutcracker

Leeds Grand Theatre, 16 Dec-2 Jan 

Pharaoh ‘Cross The Mersey

Liverpool Royal Court, until 16 Jan 

The Great Gatsby

York Theatre Royal, until 31 Dec

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