Arts: A stack of Christmas crackers: Panto doesn't rule - OK? Jenny Gilbert chooses her Top 10 shows for kids, with a special offer on every one

'LET's take the family to a show for Christmas.' But what kind of show? Once the choice was simple: pantomime or a circus. Recently both have fallen prey to chocolate advertising and gameshow culture. But there are alternatives. More theatre companies are devoting the season to children, and what follows is a selection of the best, plus two unusual circus events. To take up any of the 10 offers, give the relevant password to identify yourself as an IoS reader when making your booking. (Offers subject to availability.)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Unicorn Theatre, London WC2, 071-836 3334, to 23 Jan. Director Richard Williams arrived two years ago from Nottingham Playhouse determined to raise standards of writing, direction and design to match the best in adult theatre. Last year's Pinocchio showed it was possible; this year's Beauty has done it again. You would be hard-pressed to find more ravishing sets and costumes, and Andy Rashleigh's moving adaptation restores the story's moral core. The beast is beastly from a guilty conscience; only love can restore him. Anyone above the age of six will be entranced.

OFFER: Four free pairs of tickets for each of the Sat 11am performances on 8, 15 and 22 Jan. When booking quote ROSEBUD. pounds 4.50- pounds 7.50.

SLAVA POLUNIN'S ACADEMY OF FOOLS

Hackney Empire, London E8, 081-985 2424, 17 Dec to 9 Jan. It's hard to imagine Picasso or Lautrec getting excited about modern circuses, but here's a clown company with a pedigree. The style of these 'philosophers in boots' falls somewhere between the Marx Brothers, commedia and the Russian minstrel tradition. The props are familiar but the effects are unexpected, veering from brutal belly laughs to lyrical tenderness.

OFFER: First 20 readers to phone Tony Goodrick on 081-986 0171, password YELLOW, get 2 free tickets for the opening night. pounds 7 adults, pounds 5 children. Not for children under six.

BLACKHEATH'S VICTORIAN CIRCUS

Blackheath Concert Halls, London SE3, 081- 463 0100, 26 Dec to 3 Jan. Olde-tyme circus: no celebs, no piped music, candlelight, and traditional big-top acts such as Cockney jugglers The Uncles and 'the fibrillating Fluke'. Chestnut-roasters have ousted the hotdog van, but there is one nod to modernity: not a whisker of a performing animal.

OFFER: Special IoS family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) for pounds 25. Quote MISTLETOE. Single tickets pounds 12.50/ pounds 7.50.

PETER PAN

Sadler's Wells, London EC1, 071-278 8916, 21 Dec to 8 Jan. The story goes that one day Black Light Theatre of Prague's director Jiri Srnec was on his way home from the dentist, groggy from anaesthetic, when he saw two pairs of underpants in aerial combat with a pair of knickers. He dreamt up a technique whereby, in the dark, objects and figures picked out in ultra-violet light appear freed from gravity. Last year's Alice was a hit with its free-fall heroine and floating teapot. Peter Pan would seem even riper for treatment.

OFFER: Best seats, pounds 10 adults, pounds 6 children on 23 Dec. Quote CROCODILE. Tickets pounds 5- pounds 15.

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Little Angel, London N1, 071-226 1787, to 23 Jan. This converted temperance hall has become a point of pilgrimage for marionette devotees all over the world. The new show uses 18-inch carved string puppets, operated by visible puppeteer-actors. The script is by Gregory Motton, whose plays have been performed at the Royal Court. The music (live) is Tchaikovsky's ballet score arranged for the spinet. Small-scale perfection.

OFFER: The first 10 parties to book five or more seats get 20 per cent off. Password SPINDLE. Regular prices: pounds 6.50 adults, pounds 5 children.

THE FANTASTICAL LEGEND OF DR FAUST

Shaw Theatre, London NW1, 071-388 1394, Mon to 18 Dec. 'The deal is done. Signed in blood. Faust's soul in return for fun.' Michael Bogdanov attempts the near-impossible: a rewrite of Marlowe's dark classic for a young audience, peopled with super-lifesize sculpted figures, voiced by actors of the English Shakespeare Company. It should make gripping theatre. Suitable for 8-14s.

OFFER: Two tickets for price of one on Sat 11 Dec (11am) and Wed 15 Dec (2.30pm). Passphrase: DABBLE WITH THE DEVIL. All seats pounds 5.

THE SNOWMAN

Birmingham Rep, 021-236 4455, Mon to 29 Jan. It began as a picture-book; then it was an animated film with music; now, still wordless, it's on stage. Bill Alexander's song-and- dance version retains the original narrative: boy builds snowman who comes to life; boy introduces him to the delights and dangers of the home (TV, electric fire, freezer, false teeth), then they fly to the North Pole. Howard Blake has extended the music by a full hour, adding a tango, a pas de deux, a calypso and a new carol. Could anything match 'Walking in the Air'? Go along and find out.

OFFER: The first 10 callers get two free tickets when buying three (excluding 27 Dec to 1 Jan). Quote SNOWBALL. pounds 6.50- pounds 15.50.

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER

Contact Theatre, Manchester, 061-274 4400, to 15 Jan. Following the critical success of last year's Elidor, Contact has asked director and adaptor Bryan Elsley back for more. Mark Twain's yarn re-emerges in what promises to be another exuberant musical production.

OFFER: Free ticket to the first 10 callers per show to give the password HUCKLEBERRY. One per family. pounds 9 adults, pounds 4.50 children.

THE SNOW QUEEN

Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 0222 230451, to 8 Jan. Of all Hans Andersen's many enduring stories, this one strikes the strongest chord - a startlingly relevant tale about growing up. Kay becomes cold and destructive, joyriding in the town square. Gerda sets out to bring him back.

OFFER: The first 5 readers to produce a copy of the IoS get one ticket free when they buy two in person (22-29 Dec only). pounds 4.50- pounds 7.50.

THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE

Glasgow Citizens, 041-429 0022, to 22 Jan. 'The Citz' was among the first adult companies to establish a tradition of end-of-year family shows, and Giles Havergal has directed all but two of them since 1969. He believes in audience participation: 'It's important for young ones to feel involved. Not mindless 'oh no he didn'ts', but when there are moral dilemmas, the children are consulted. Should the children go into the wardrobe?' Myles Rudge's adaptation will pass muster with C S Lewis fans in both attention to detail and other-worldliness.

OFFER: One child's ticket free with each adult ticket bought for the 2pm show on Hogmanay. pounds 6- pounds 8.50. Password ASLAN. -

(Photograph omitted)

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