Look behind you! The best panto and Christmas theatre in the north

Kevin Bourke

As the jingle bells and jingling tills start ringing at local theatres, we look at some of the most interesting festive shows.

For many families, festive theatre is still inextricably tied up with panto. Oh yes it is! And for as long as many of us can remember, the place to go for the best traditional panto has been Oldham Coliseum. This year’s offering, Jack And The Beanstalk (until 4 Jan), is well up to its usual standard of thoroughly fun shenanigans for all the family, boasting an unusually witty script that’s genuinely funny for both kids and adults.

Whilst the Coliseum relies on traditional values and the utter professionalism of the likes of Fine Time Fontayne as the Dame (aka Ian Crossley), in Manchester the emphasis is on big TV names. The Opera House’s Dick Whittington stars Alice Fitzwarren and her dog, better known as Britain’s Got Talent winners Ashleigh and Pudsey, alongside West End and television star Jodie Prenger, and Ben Faulks (known to many a Cbeebies tot as Mr Bloom, but also a Manchester Theatre Awards winner, 6 Dec-5 Jan). Considerably less than ten miles down the road, the Palace has opted to go down the big musical route. And musicals don’t get much bigger than the one against which all the rest must be judged, West Side Story; it runs 10 December until 5 January.

Musicals don’t get much bigger than the one against which all the rest must be judged: West Side Story

In for an even longer haul is the must-see show War Horse at The Lowry, about which you can read much more here, while in The Lowry’s Quays Theatre, the Library Theatre Company has its own version of Robin Hood. In fact, if the twang’s the thang for you, then Bolton’s Octagon Theatre presents its own, impressively entertaining version of his escapades, directed by Elizabeth Newman, until 11 January.

Back in Manchester, the Royal Exchange is adventurously reviving Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang, previously seen at the Opera House as part of Manchester International Festival. It was directed then by Victoria herself (who’s also directing the TV film version, due early next year), but the Exchange’s Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom has taken the reins for this new version, running from 5 December until 8 January.

There’s adventure of quite a different sort in the Exchange’s Studio. It’s The Adventure, in fact, an inventive interactive show for children described as “The Famous Five meets Scooby Doo meets The Crystal Maze”. It’s in (and around!) The Studio from 10-21 December. Across in Bury, The Met and Proper Job Theatre Company present a version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden (11-24 Dec). It’s their fourth collaboration, following previous successes with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Scrooge and Pinocchio.

If you prefer big Arenas to intimate theatres, then you might feel the urge to fly along to Peter Pan – The Never Ending Story, a spectacular, “look-no-strings” worldwide arena tour that lands at Manchester Arena on 29 December (until 30 Dec). Over in Liverpool, there’s a more adult feel to Dreaming of a Barry White Christmas, premiering at the Echo Arena from 17 December (until 21 Dec). Described as a “Scouse Scrooge comedy” and full of original hits from “walrus of love” Barry White, it could be cool… More likely to be a big hit is Liverpool Playhouse’s ever-popular rock’n’roll pantomime. This year Aladdin gets the raucously rollicking treatment, on now until 18 January. A little further afield is Theatre by the Lake’s festive offering: a new adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. This Lake District-set classic story is retold in an imaginative new play, one that uses junk puppets, and is well worth a trip up to the Lakes for (until 18 Jan).

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