It’s that time of year again. Oh yes it is! So with a slap of the thigh and a sprinkle of fairy dust, Whatsonstage.com offers its annual run-down of Christmas show highlights. This year sees a bumper crop of celebrities and panto veterans donning their tights and wigs in the name of festive fun, with ‘grande dames’ Joan Collins, Barbara Windsor and Lily Savage among them.

And for those looking for slightly more high-brow Christmas entertainment there’s no shortage of options over the coming weeks, from the National Theatre’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings to the Bristol Old Vic’s new staging of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons.


Pick of the pantos

This year is all about panto comebacks. Foremost among them, pneumatic former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who played the Genie of the Lamp in Aladdin at the New Wimbledon Theatre last year, is reprising the role (for First Family Entertainment) at the Liverpool Empire. The blonde Hollywood pin-up said recently she was “thrilled” to be making her panto return, and “very excited” about spending time in Liverpool - having been recommended the city by none other than Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz), who played opposite her as Captain Hook last year. This year her co-stars include Les Dennis as Wishee Washee.

Another veteran blonde bombshell making a comeback this year is ex-EastEnder Barbara Windsor, who’ll be making her first panto appearance since 1995 when she plays Fairy Bowbells in Dick Whittington at Bristol Hippodrome (11 December to 9 January). And the last of the blonde bombshells is Lily Savage, who’s being taken out of retirement by Paul O’Grady for a “final, rare and unique stage appearance” as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Southampton’s Mayflower (10 December to 8 January).

Panto debutantes this year include the evergreen Joan Collins, who plays Queen Rat in Dick Whittington at Birmingham Hippodrome (18 December to 30 January) opposite a stellar cast including Nigel Havers, Julian Clary and Keith Harris. Meanwhile, someone who lost his panto virginity long ago - Whatsonstage.com Awards host Christopher Biggins - will be dusting off his frock to play Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton (11 December to 30 January).

Another veteran dame, the Olivier-nominated Clive Rowe, will be strutting his stuff once more at the newly reopened Hackney Empire, where Jack and the Beanstalk (written and directed as always by Susie McKenna), runs from 2 December 2010 to 9 January 2011 (previews from 27 November).

And this year’s Prince Charmings include two familiar West End faces: Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh) who stars in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Glasgow's King's Theatre (3 December to 9 January), while, fresh from his part in Les Miserables’ 25th anniversary celebrations, Gareth Gates appears in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking (10 December to 16 January).

Something (slightly) more serious

For those who prefer meat to stilton at Christmas time, there are plenty of ‘grown-up’ festive treats to choose from. The National Theatre isn’t running its regular family Christmas show in the Olivier this year, instead offering two seasonal productions on its two smaller stages. In the Lyttelton, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1980 comedy Season’s Greetings, featuring a stellar cast led by Catherine Tate, Mark Gatiss, Jenna Russell, Neil Stuke and Katherine Parkinson, is revived by War Horse director Marianne Elliott, running in rep from 8 December (previews from 1 December).

In the Cottesloe meanwhile, following her family-friendly production of The Cat in the Hat in the same venue last year, Katie Mitchell returns to take on the classic French fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast - don’t expect Disney schmaltz and a Celine Dion-infused score! The text is by up-and-coming playwright Lucy Kirkwood, with puppets designed by Matthew Robins and videos by Fifty-Nine Productions. It runs in rep from 1 December (previews from 24 November), and is suitable for ages eight and above.

Regionally, the newly resurgent Bristol Old Vic’s first ever staging of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (1 December to 15 January) should be a real treat. The new musical features a book by Helen Edmundson with music by Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, while the venue’s new artistic director (and War Horse co-director) Tom Morris directs. The blurb promises “a Christmas treat that will never be forgotten - even by duffers”.

In Liverpool, theatre company Peepolykus (Spyski!) bring their unique comic spin to No Wise Men (3 December to 15 January), “the extraordinary tale of a reckless man who risks everything one Christmas Eve”. And last but certainly not least, Stuart Paterson's reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is revived by director Mark Thomson, starring Allison McKenzie as the original queen of cool.

Adults-only & alternative

There's now a rich tradition of 'adults-only' pantomimes, which have steadily broken out of student unions into the mainstream. Among the offerings this year is Paddy McGuinness and Jonathan Wilkes' Panto's on Strike at Manchester Opera House (until 27 November), which features gags by Phoenix Nights star McGuinness and an opening song penned by Wilkes' mate Robbie Williams (who led a singalong of "Angels" on opening night).

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the commercial scale, the 60-seat Rosemary Branch Theatre in London is serving up its annual 'boutique' panto, Robin Hood, which promises "tights as tight as tights can be". And on a similar theme, gay new writing venue Above the Stag is presenting its own adults-only take on the merry men, Robin Hood - Queen of Thieves (30 November to 22 December).

Staying in the capital (and suitable for those with youngsters), CBBC stars Dan and Jeff's latest condensed creation Potted Panto is hitting the West End's Vaudeville Theatre from 10 December to 9 January. The show, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, packs seven classic pantos into a madcap 80 minutes, providing a neat overview of the weird and wonderful world of pantomime.

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