DECEMBER is the busiest month in the theatre calendar, as everyone from community groups to the National Theatre of Scotland adds their bit of festive cheer. Sweets will be thrown and baddies will be booed, but there's a good deal more than that going on. Here is how the land lies this season.
If you like 'em lavish, large-scale and raucous, then Glasgow is your city. Here, at any rate, is where the battle for the panto pound is at its most intense. Taking pride of place is Sleeping Beauty at the King's (2 Dec-8 Jan), which is fielding a terribly tempting line-up of Karen Dunbar, Clare Grogan and Tony Roper. Expect strong support too from Steven McNicoll and Kath Howden as the king and queen.
Competition - or "compemetition", as the late Gerard Kelly used to have it - comes from the SECC, new kid on the panto block, which is reuniting last year's successful partnership of John Barrowman and the Krankies for Robinson Crusoe And The Caribbean Pirates (17 Dec-7 Jan). Whatever your memories of the Krankies from 1980s TV, you have to see them live to appreciate their fan-dabi-dozi appeal.
Over at the Pavilion, former stomping ground of the Krankies, you can expect an extra helping of rough and tumble as Jim Davidson takes on the role of Captain Hook in The Magical Adventures Of Peter Pan (30 Nov-21 Jan).
You'll find similar spectaculars all over the place, prime among them being Jack And The Beanstalk at His Majesty's, Aberdeen (3 Dec-7 Jan) with Elaine C Smith starring as Fairy Flora McDonald, and Cinderella at the King's, Edinburgh (3 Dec-22 Jan), starring firm favourites Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott.
It's hard to satirise a form that revels in its own ridiculousness, but there are a handful of shows that add an extra level of irony. Sitting closest to the borderline between the traditional and the subversive is Jackie And The Beanstalk at the MacRobert, Stirling (until 7 Jan), the latest caper written, directed and starring Johnny McKnight. Known for his work with Random Accomplice, McKnight plays Dame Dot Von Trott who, with her two daughters, has to reunite the pantosphere with its stolen Christmas spirit.
The template for McKnight's alternative spin on the traditional panto was set out at Glasgow's Tron which, this year, is revisiting Mister Merlin: A Pure Magic Panto (2-31 Dec). Last seen at the Tron in 1989 under the title of Peter And Penny's Panto, Alex Norton's rewritten show is about two puppets who have to retrieve Merlin's stolen magic. The top-notch cast is led by Jimmy Chisholm, who was also in the 1989 production.
There are likely to be similar levels of irreverence in Scrooge: The Panto at the relaunched Cottiers in Glasgow (7-31 Dec). Set in a modern-day pawn shop, it promises "music, singing and some very basic dancing". Alternatively, if you can dedicate no more than a lunch hour to the panto form, your only option will be Snow White And The Seventh Dwarf, the seasonal offering at A Play, a Pie and a Pint (Òran Mór, Glasgow, 5-24 Dec). Expect a fun-filled, no-budget romp by Dave Anderson and David MacLennan about Snow White's little-known relationship with her favourite dwarf.
Perhaps you want something of the magic of a traditional panto but could do without so much of the clamour of the big city-centre shows. If so, you shouldn't have to travel far to find what you're after. At Perth Theatre, for example, Jack And The Beanstalk (9 Dec-7 Jan) by Alan McHugh (whose work can also be seen in Glasgow and Aberdeen) drafts in local youngsters to join a cast of professionals including Sandy Batchelor as Jack, Anne Kidd as the queen and Peter Kelly as the king.
At Musselburgh's Brunton, writer and director Liam Rudden is back, turning his attentions to Aladdin (29 Nov-7 Jan), cramming it with local jokes and bringing in 25 young East Lothian performers to help Widow Twankey and Wishee Washee defeat the evil Abanazar. From Kirkcaldy to Cumbernauld, Motherwell to St Andrews, the same kind of merriment is going on.
More local still is Snow White And The Seven Leithers (19-23 Dec), a panto set in Leithuania by Leith Community Theatre at the South Leith Parish Hall.
Look out too for youth theatre shows, which have their own special energy. Edinburgh's Strangetown is fielding an impressive set of five all-new shows, including Alan Gordon's Snow White And The Seven Delinquents and Dunan Kidd's Beauty And The Beast, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (8-11 Dec).
Meanwhile, at Aberdeen's Lemon Tree, Scottish Youth Theatre is performing Jack And The Magic Beans (5-24 Dec).
After shouting yourself hoarse with your cries of "He's behind you", you could be ready for something a little more sedate. Christmas shows recognise the appetite for seasonal entertainment but prefer rich storytelling to stock plots. This year, the National Theatre of Scotland is entering the December fray for the first time with an intimate retelling of A Christmas Carol at Film City in Govan Town Hall (30 Nov-31 Dec). Director Graham McLaren is giving the Dickens story a particularly spooky staging that makes use of sinister life-size puppets alongside the cast of five. For another take on the same story, you can check out Tommy Steele in the musical Scrooge at Glasgow's Theatre Royal (28 Nov-3 Dec).
Several of the major rep theatres head in the same direction. Whether it's Phil Porter's Cinderella at Dundee Rep (29 Nov-31 Dec), Stuart Paterson's Beauty And The Beast at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (25 Nov-31 Dec) or Alan McHugh's Hansel And Gretel at the Citizens, Glasgow (3 Dec-7 Jan), these shows draw on the archetypal power of the classic fairytale to provide satisfying drama.
Introducing a brand new tale, writer-director Jonathan Stone takes us on Sergeant Cracker's Christmas Quest at the Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline (30 Nov-26 Dec). This competition among the baubles to get to the top of the Christmas tree promises audience participation and elements of pantomime, but also deeper themes about tradition versus modernity and the acceptance of getting older.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Scottish theatre companies such as Starcatchers, there is a growing market for shows aimed at the very young. Stirling's MacRobert has a great record for this kind of work and this year is fielding two productions for tots. Polar Molar (29 Nov-31 Dec) is an icy tale for the over-threes about Captain Scot Scott's mission to find the world's last polar bear, while Too Many Penguins? (7-24 Dec) is a hands-on chance for the under-threes to discover how many penguins can squeeze into a tiny space.
Other shows aimed at a similar audience include The Night After Christmas, in which two elves prepare a feast for the hard-working Father Christmas, at Glasgow's Tron (3-23 Dec); Rudolph, a CATS-nominated show about trying to fit in, at Glasgow's Arches (2 Dec-3 Jan); Little Ulla, an interactive show about a mountain goat, at Glasgow's Citizens (10 Dec-7 Jan); and The Lost Sock Princess, about what happens to the partners of all those odd socks in your drawer, by Puppet Lab at Edinburgh's Traverse (14-23 Dec).
At Edinburgh's Scottish Storytelling Centre there are a couple of festive events based on Diana Hendry's The Very Snowy Christmas. First, the author herself reads a selection of her tales (16 Dec), then Blunderbus Theatre Company presents a staged version (23-24 Dec) of the story of Little Mouse learning about snow.
For a subtle take on a traditional fairytale, there is Scottish Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty, which opens at Glasgow's Theatre Royal (17-31 Dec) before dates in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness in January. Ashley Page's production, set to a live performance of Tchaikovsky's score, was first seen to acclaim in 2008 and features stunning designs by Antony McDonald that take us from 19th-century Russia to 20th-century London.
For those who say, "Bah, humbug," to all this festive cheer, but who still fancy a good night out, Edinburgh has three tinsel-free options. First is The Tree Of Knowledge, a new play by Jo Clifford at the Traverse (8-24 Dec) in which David Hume and Adam Smith find themselves catapulted into the 21st century and are dismayed to see how their ideas have been put into practice. Gerry Mulgrew, Neil McKinven and Joanna Tope star in Ben Harrison's production.
After that, your choice is between the pomp of The King And I, the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical, at the Festival Theatre (14 Dec-7 Jan) and the bombast of We Will Rock You, Ben Elton's tribute to the music of Queen, at the Playhouse (29 Nov-7 Jan). Whether these are pantomimes in all but name is for you to decide
© Mark Fisher, 2011
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