Preview: Christmas
family theatre

Subverting traditional tales, raising environmental questions and rewriting girls into central roles are the priorities of children’s theatre-makers this Christmas, finds Antonia Charlesworth

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Traditional panto will always entertain kids, but with a world of digital entertainment at their fingertips children are smarter than ever and have come to expect more. Luckily for them, there’s an abundance of theatre-makers working to make sure they are entertained this Christmas.

“We offer a much calmer environment than pantomime,” reassures Rachel Whibley, managing director of Carrot Productions and a professional bassoonist. She’s behind the large-scale December tour of The Snowman, in which the classic Raymond Briggs film is screened to the accompaniment of a live 26-strong professional orchestra.

“The incredible effect of hearing live musicians, perhaps for the first time for many, is always profoundly moving for all ages. Performances offer the perfect first glimpse of an orchestra for children of all ages, as they are presented in an unstuffy and approachable way.” The Snowman visits Hull, Sheffield, York and Blackpool Tower Ballroom this week (

The Witches (until 21 Jan,, of course, despise children but the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds has selected a failsafe combination of talents to entertain them in Roald Dahl and children’s dramatist David Wood, who’s adapted the frightening tale for stage. Their track record can be challenged only by Hans Christian Andersen – one of his lesser-known tales has been adapted by Neil Duffield for family audiences in Keswick.

The Emperor And The Nightingale (until 14 Jan, follows young emperor Wu, who embarks on an adventure across ancient China. The show features puppetry, original music and all the colour and spectacle of Chinese theatre.

Another adaptation of a classic tale can be found at Hull Truck Theatre. A Christmas Treasure Island is based on the Robert Louis Stephenson classic but the main character, Jem Hawkins, is reimagined as a girl by award-winning Coronation Street writer Debbie Oates (until 7 Jan,

With theatre company Tutti Frutti, master of family theatre Mike Kenny has also reimagined a classic – Peter Pan – from a female perspective, in Underneath A Magical Moon (until 31 Dec,

“Tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel all have girls as central characters and strong female baddies too but along the way they got hijacked,” says Kenny. “More recent stories are interesting if you look at them through 21st century eyes. No girl or woman I know is happy to sit around waiting to be rescued.”

“We have retold the story for the times we live in,” adds Wendy Harris, Tutti Frutti artistic director. “We wanted to retell the story of Peter Pan but from the point of view of Wendy Darling, as things have changed quite a lot in the 100 years since JM Barrie wrote it. Our audiences love the ambition of our Wendy, who gazes at the moon with aspirations of being an astronaut. In our play Wendy also defeats Captain Hook single-handedly.”

In Sheffield’s Studio Theatre, Unicorn Theatre presents The Snow Child. It tells the story of a childless couple who sculpt a daughter out of snow. She magically comes to life (until 7 Jan,

Also longing for a child of his own is Geppetto, whose wooden boy is brought to life in two productions of Pinocchio this year – at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre (until 31 Dec, and in the round at the Dukes in Lancaster (until 7 Jan,

“It’s like life has come full circle,” says 21-year-old Lucas Button, who plays the boy made in the carpenter’s workshop. “It was in 2005 when I was 10 and my dad [a Dukes box office assistant] said there were auditions for a little part in A Christmas Carol, so I gave it a go and was one of three boys chosen to play Tiny Tim. Afterwards I just knew I wanted to be an actor.”

Button has recently graduated from Central School of Speech and Drama in London and after his homecoming this Christmas he begins rehearsals with the English National Opera for its production of The Winter’s Tale at London Coliseum.

In Liverpool and Manchester this Christmas theatre-makers are asking children to think about the environment. Unity Theatre presents Little Red And The Big Bad Wolf by Action Transport Theatre (until 7 Jan,, which questions whether the wolves are really the villains in a world where the woodcutter is destroying the forest. The Royal Exchange and Puppet State Theatre Company stage The Man Who Planted Trees (until 31 Dec,, an environmental classic by Jean Giono, telling the story of a shepherd who plants a forest, transforming a barren wasteland.

There’s more puppetry in Manchester with WOW! Said The Owl (until 30 Dec,, an adaptation of Tim Hopgood’s pre-school book brought to life through a blend of beautiful storytelling, puppetry and music for children aged 2-5.

Nearby at the Lowry comic Jason Manford plays Caractacus Potts alongside cast mates Claire Sweeney and Phil Jupitus in a huge production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (until
15 Jan,

A short trip up the M61 will take you to Bolton Octagon where Kenny presents a second seasonal show, a rebellious adaptation of Cinderella featuring five rats, one romance and, strictly, no cheese (until 14 Jan,

“It’s extremely important that we tell these traditional fairytales in non-traditional ways,” says artistic director Elizabeth Newman. “There is a rich history to these stories and it would be a shame not to explore that with the curious minds of young people. “Children and young people are always savvy audience members. They come to hear a story and to be absorbed in the production, to experience theatre that is interesting and fun.”

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