“The most wonderful time of the year” is nearly upon us, and while some might question exactly how wonderful it is, the festive season is certainly a cracker (ho ho ho) for stage shows. Re-imagined fairytales, cabaret cheer, immersive parties, a zoo's-worth of animals and a sprinkling of Christmas magic are all on offer in the capital alongside the traditional Christmas pantos — although there are plenty of those too (oh no there aren’t, oh yes...you see where we’re going with this). Here are our festive favourites:
With a Christmas tree, Snowflakes, Angels and a Sugar Plum Fairy, it doesn’t get much more Christmassy than The Nutcracker. A ballet performed by countless companies since its first incarnation in 1892, The Nutcracker follows the story of a young girl on Christmas Eve who gets whisked into a fantastical world where toys become larger than life.
This season, you can enjoy it at London’s Coliseum with the English National Ballet (11 December-5 January 2014, £25-£74.50) or at the Royal Opera House with The Royal Ballet (4 December-16 January 2014, £24-£112). Both are set to the incredibly popular Tchaikovsky score and look set to be real Christmas treats.
For over 20 years the Wintershall Players, based at Wintershall in Surrey, have performed their famous Nativity play to tens of thousands of people at its home in the Surrey Hills. This year for the first time the Wintershall Nativity Play is making its own pilgrimage for a one-off special against the backdrop of BBC Broadcasting House. With a cast of over 70, songs, music, live sheep and donkeys, it’s the Nativity on a grand scale. 19 December, £20.50/£10.50.
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” Settle down this Christmas at Unicorn Theatre to hear the much-loved story of a father who, one special night, met a certain twinkly-eyed, round-bellied chap as he landed his sleigh on the roof. 3 December-5 January 2014, £10-£16.
For something altogether different, you could try an ‘immersive theatre Christmas party’ at performing arts venue Village Underground. Together with Secret Productions and immersive theatre company Petersham Playhouse, The Imaginarium offers companies something different than the usual dinner-and-drinks-and-moredrinks-and-bottomphotocopying-and-awkwardfumbleinthecloakroom. The venue has been transformed into a series of magical parallel universes and with tube carriages, wartime planes, curiosity shops and a whole host of actors to bring it to life. It certainly sounds set to be an office party to remember. 20 December, £49.50.
Fantastical, bizarre, and with a whole lot of Whos, the Grammy-nominated musical Seussical the Musical is at Arts Theatre to tell the story of Horton the Elephant and the tiny world of the Who he heard (he did hear it, he did, he definitely definitely did!). 30 November-5 January 2014, £25/£22.50.
Dip your toe into a bit of festive variety this season at The Clapham Grand. Beyond the Christmas Cabaret is back for an evening of Yuletide cheer by some of London’s foremost variety performers. Nothing says pass the cranberry sauce quite like burlesque, musical duos, acrobatics and comedy, all hosted by cabaret veteran Des O’Connor. 15 December, £15-£25
Get to your feet and start unravelling the magic of Christmas for yourself with these immersive performances. George Neighbour has lived at Battersea Arts Centre his whole life, but his memory isn’t what it used to be. Join him at The Good Neighbour to take over the old Battersea building, solve the mysteries and unveil a host of curious characters, all with their own tale to tell. 6 December-4 January 2014, £12-£19.50.
No pressure, but you might have to save Christmas this year. If you’re up for the challenge, then book yourself a place at Look Left Look Right’s interactive production of Once Upon a Christmas. A theatrical adventure around Covent Garden, you’ll meet with some distinctly unconventional characters but no time for chit chat, as the decisions you make will have an impact on the story. 21 and 22 November, £36.50.
Or take to the forest in Humperdinck’s famed classic, Hansel and Gretel. Opera in Space, a company dedicated to providing affordable opera in unusual spaces, puts on a performance of the sinister story as you’ve never seen it before. Be led through three different worlds across three floors of a converted warehouse in Peckham on a musical mystery tour. 2-21 December, £12.50.
If the annual cries of "I want a PUPPY’", "but I asked for a KITTEN", "I don’t care if they don't actually exist, I demand a UNICORN" leave you reaching for the bathroom medicine cabinet, then you may be pleased to hear that gorillas, tigers, snails, whales and even an elephantom are on offer this year. Most of these shows are aimed at kids, but Londonist is still waiting on their pet unicorn, so we’re sure big kids are welcome too.
A toy gorilla comes to life in Gorilla, a magical adventure tale at Polka Theatre (until 15 February 2014, £10/£8), while another joins the circus in the storytelling spectacular The Snow Gorilla at Rose Theatre Kingston (29 November-5 January 2014, £8-£27).
Fantasy classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is also at Polka Theatre (22 November-15 February 2014, £11-£16) and Kenneth Grahame's timeless tale The Wind in the Willows is being brought to life at Duchess Theatre (11 December-1 February 2014, £15-£50).
Ted Hughes’s magical stories are transformed into a captivating new Royal Opera commission in How the Whale Became at the Royal Opera House (3 December-4 January, £7-£25), and Tall Stories (creators of the Gruffalo and Room on the Broom stage shows) gives the whale an adventurous, but tiny, partner in The Snail and the Whale at St James’ Theatre (10 December-5 January 2014, £18/£16).
Join Sophie and an unexpected guest at artsdepot in a stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s award-winning picture book, The Tiger Who Came To Tea (3 December-5 January 2014, £14), or meet The Elephantom at The Shed, who has been brought to life through ingenious puppetry and a bit of Christmas magic (10 December-11 January 2014, £12).
London’s longest running magic and illusion show (now in its 11th year), The Magic Cavern is at Barons Court Theatre with extra sprinklings of magic to celebrate the festive season. Witness the impossible, suspend belief, and... tell the box office manager if it's your birthday to get a shout-out. Magic. 1-27 December, £12/£8.
If that doesn’t fill your magic quota then delve deeper into the cavern to experience The Ice Cave Magic Show. From the same creators and also at Barons Court Theatre, if you didn’t believe your eyes last time then... er... you’re unlikely to believe them this time. 23 December-4 January 2014, £8/£12.
The Grown Up
Nice tales of magic and animals at Christmas? Bah, humbug! If you prefer your theatre outings less sugar and more spice (and certainly never all things nice) then The Night Before Christmas at Soho Theatre is promising Yuletide with a bit of satirical bite (29 November-5 January 2014, £17.50-£25), and Mischief Theatre is at Pleasance Theatre (intentionally) butchering a much-loved favourite, with Peter Pan Goes Wrong (10 December-5 January 2014, £12-£16).
Or if you like your Christmas dinner with a side of transvestite dance routines, then Santamental at Hackney’s Lime Wharf should do the trick. Club night Sink the Pink teams up with musical duo Bourgeois & Maurice for a one-off explosive Christmas party featuring DJs, discos, a fortune-telling elf, the 12 Gays of Christmas Tranny Choir, and other alternative performances such as, ahem, Glitter My Shitter. And as if that wasn’t salacious enough, there’ll also be a real log fire. Dirty. 20 December, £15.
“Christmas? Bah! Humbug!” Oh wait we already did that one. “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” There we go, that’s a good one. There are no lack of Dickens Christmas quotes thanks to his classic novella, A Christmas Carol, and no shortage of stage adaptations either. Get stuck in at Barons Court Theatre with a light-hearted, modern, family participation adaptation (3-7 December, £9-£12), try out a raucous two-man version at Waterloo East Theatre (3-22 December, £14/£11.50), or head to Etcetera Theatre for A Christmas Carol the way Dickens told it himself: one man, one stage (17-22 December, £11.50).
London’s Charles Dickens Museum (the Victorian London home of the author) is an obvious location for Dickens festive frivolity. There are a few spankingly good events taking place such as Dickensian walks through London, costumed tours and even the chance to spend Christmas Day itself at the museum. But on the theatre side there are atmospheric readings by Professor Michael Slater (16 December, £12) and actor Dominic Gerrard (17-21 December, £16), plus an evening of puppetry, opera, food and storytelling with Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Cracker. 4-14 December, £24.
But for the hardcore Dick fans, Dickens Abridged at Arts Theatre is a high-speed, comic journey through his Greatest Hits. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop, and, of course, A Christmas Carol are all on the 90 minute agenda, as is a journey through the bizarre-but-true life story of the man himself (27 November-5 January 2014, £20-£39.50).
If Christmas makes you think of snuggling up in front of the telly to watch a young boy and his come-to-life Snowman go ‘walking in the air’ above a snowy Christmas landscape (we’re nearly welling up already), then you might be a Briggser. And if you’re a Briggser, then you should definitely catch Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at Peacock Theatre (27 November-5 January 2014, £12-£32) or the equally lovely Father Christmas at Lyric Hammersmith (22 November-4 January, £8/£10).
Performance storytellers extraordinaire The Crick Crack Club bring a Festival of Fairytales for Grown-Ups to the Bargehouse by Oxo Tower Wharf. The five-storey Victorian warehouse will be filled with trolls, angels, magicians, Christmas carols, a labyrinth, and quite comfortingly, a lot of hot chocolate across five days of festive fairytales. Pick your winter adventure and get whisked along. 11-15 December, £5 or £3.50+bf per event, or £57 for the entire festival.
Follow a re-imagining of one of the best loved fairytales of all time, with Cinderella: A Fairytale at Unicorn Theatre. Based on The Brothers Grimm tale, this production, nominated for an Olivier Award earlier this year, approaches the classic with quirky originality, visual style and live music. 26 November-5 January 2014, £15-22.
We couldn’t write a Christmas stage list without including a selection of this year’s set of Christmas pantomimes. Incredibly cheesy, even more cringeworthy and most of all, bloody good fun, they’re a British institution and we love them (or love to hate them).
This year expect cat puns aplenty with Puss in Boots at Hackney Empire (23 November-5 January 2014, £10-£32). Er, even more cat puns at the ‘mewsical’ panto Dick Whittington at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch (30 November-11 January 2014, £18-£25). Evil giants reside with Jack and the Beanstalk at Lyric Hammersmith (23 November-4 January 2014, £12.50-£35) with another edition at Southwark Playhouse (6 December-11 January 2014, £10-£14).
Swashbuckling adventures and peg-leg-shaking await upon Battersea Barge with Pilates in the Caribbean (1-12 December, £16.35), Peter Pan is taking to the skies at Richmond Theatre (7 December-12 January 2014, £11.90-£40.40) and Aladdin is taking you to ‘a whole new world’ (sorry) at Compass Theatre (12-29 December, £8-£14.50)
Can’t decide? Just non-committal? No problem, try Potted Panto at Vaudeville Theatre for seven classic pantomimes in 80 frenetic minutes. Hold onto your magic lamps/beans/apples/slippers, it’s a madcap ride through Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White. 8 December-5 January 2014, £20-£31.50.
Know a cracker of a Christmas show that isn’t on the list? Feel free to add it to the comments below.
Images courtesy of Pierre Mallien in the Londonist Flickr pool.