It’s behind you

It’s not just panto on offer at the theatres this festive season. Andy Murray chats to the director of a strange and irreverent wintery tale and wraps up the best of the rest

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Back in 2011, when The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart was first being performed in the pubs and bars of Scotland, one enraptured audience member was future theatre student Debbie Hannan.

“I thought it was incredible. It was about all these high-minded ideas – what is heaven, what is hell, who are we, what’s your idea of yourself versus the reality of yourself – but presented in rhyming couplets and song and silliness,” says Hannan, now an acclaimed director. “There are plays that can touch everyone and be entertaining but have really big ideas in them. You can totally do both at once. This play made me realise that.”

Ten years later, Hannan is working on her own production of the show at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

“For people who work in theatre, the start of Covid was a really scary time. To then be asked to come to one of the most wonderful theatres in the UK with a play that meant a lot to me and my younger self – that was a big moment.”

Written by David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is, according to Hannan, “a really raucous, entertaining musical about a Scottish folk literature academic who’s very uptight, goes to a conference in the Scottish Borders, ends up getting snowed in and meets a stranger – all on a massive, wild night out.”

It’s certainly not your average Christmas show, but, set over the winter solstice, in its own way it fits the season neatly.

“It’s all about the moment when the snow falls and everything that was gets wiped out, when you take a look at who you are and who you’ve been. You’ve got this young woman for whom everything’s flipped on its head. It feels quite Christmassy in spirit, with songs and a lot of entertainment and light moments as well.”

In fact, it’s not as far away from being a pantomime as you might expect. “This is definitely a play, a play with songs, but it’s got that panto cheek in it. There’s a lot of really ridiculous humour and bad behaviour like you’d only get in a panto.”

The original production of Prudencia Hart channelled the play’s antic spirit by staging it in community drinking spaces, but the Royal Exchange has the advantage of being in the round.

”You can tell these epic stories or intimate stories all at the same time and the audience feel really involved. That involvement feels like being in the pub and someone telling a really good story. The original show was very interactive. The performers were at your table as you sat there, which is definitely a thing that we can’t do with Covid. But I think we’ve found so many other ways to make you feel engaged, like you’re in the middle of the party.”

There’s nothing half-hearted about the production, even in these straitened, post-lockdown times. “Because of that uncertainty, we’ve made the most ambitious commitment to this show. We’ve gone, okay, theatres have been shut, but if we’re going to be open again we’re going to do it with gung-ho spirit – we’re going for gold!”

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Manchester Royal Exchange, until 15 Jan

Peter Pan performed on stage

Christmas theatre wrapped up

There are plenty of other theatre shows to see over the festive period, even if panto isn’t necessarily your bag.

Several venues are bringing beloved children’s books to the stage for family audiences. At the Lowry in Salford, there’s still time to see the bold, ambitious adaptation of CS Lewis’s fantasy epic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (until 15 Jan). The production, with its inventive use of puppetry, started life in 2017 at Leeds Playhouse, which this year is itself staging a lavish new version of JM Barrie’s classic children’s adventure as Wendy & Peter Pan (until 22 Jan) – told, as the title suggests, from a subtly different point of view. It might not be Dickens’ most obviously Christmassy tale, but Storyhouse in Chester offers a fresh and boisterous new “street-savvy” musical version of Oliver Twist (until 16 Jan), while Hull Truck presents Mike Kenny’s award-winning stage version of E Nesbit’s The Railway Children (until 2 Jan), now incorporating original songs (and sponsored by Hull Trains).

If you fancy an alternative to traditional pantomime, there’s Liverpool Everyman’s now-traditional rock ‘n’ roll panto, back this year in the form of an uproarious Robin Hood retelling called Tights in White Satin (until 15 Jan). There’s also a lively, inventive perspective on Cinderella titled The Not So Ugly Sisters at Sale Waterside (until 1 Jan). The latter is the work of Leeds theatre company Wrongsemble, which will also be bringing a new show called Tinsel, about a boy determined to be the fairy on top of his Christmas tree, to various venues around their hometown (until 31 Dec). If you really want to take the irreverent, non-family friendly route, though, Manchester Palace Theatre is playing host to hit missionary musical The Book of Mormon (until 1 Jan).

Photos: The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart: Joanne Thomson and Paul Tinto, and Wendy & Peter Pan (Johan Persson/Marc Brenner)

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