Christmas Shows: It's panto time, kids! Oh no it isn't...

From Widow Twankey to `no room at the inn', Christmas shows are back. What's best, the old-fashioned or the new-fangled approach? By Paul Taylor

What is your idea of the perfect Christmas treat in the theatre? Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken? Beckett's Not I, with just a hint of tinsel round the mouth?

I was going to say that, if so, then it probably means that you don't have kids. In fact, the exact opposite is more likely. It's the children outside, not the child inside, who preoccupy parents at this time of year - leading to "panto rage" as you feel the prospect of ever again seeing a show aimed exclusively at you recede ever further into the distance.

There are a number of solutions. You could sample an adult equivalent of a pantomime, or select a children's show that treats your progeny as fully functioning people rather than as passive receptors of stale television material.

A good example of the former would be Boom Chicago - the Amsterdam-based American improvisational comedy group (yes, really) - now playing each night at the Jermyn Street Theatre. As a result of a misunderstanding I arrived a little late for the first of their two pieces. Having been spirited in by a kind box-office assistant, I engaged with 2000 Years Down the Drain: From Jesus Christ to Jerry Springer at the point where the five-strong company were asking the audience to shout out suggestions for a two-word phrase beginning with a D and a P.

In such circumstances, my mind always immediately throws up two mutually unsuitable (or else too suitable) propositions, and then jams completely. Thus it was that "Dolly Parton" and "detumescent penis" reared their joint heads. Mind you, "dog poo" and "Deep Purple", a couple of contributions from the rest of the audience, have a spookily similar relationship.

Boom Chicago are frighteningly young and wonderfully bright eyed and bushy tailed. They chortle with cute gallantry at each other's off-the- cuff gags and there are times when they behave as though they have just discovered improv - trotting up and laying a sketch before you with a "hey-aren't-I-adorably-original?" flourish, rather as a puppy might triumphantly drop a chewed-up tennis ball before the weary gaze of Barbara Woodhouse.

The earlier show consists of an alternation of scripted sketches (some of them a bit last-season, such as the one where the couple on a first date have their respective lawyers dictating the terms of engagement) and higher-energy, extemporised stuff, such as the sequence where Seth Meyers and Jill Benjamin, playing a couple of dopey hicks in Stetsons, have to identify the fanciful noises being made (in collusion with the audience) by the rest of the cast.

This pair are seriously talented. He sends up his Americanised Hugh Grant look and she has a strong, attractive aura of Susan Sarandon. They are the performers in the later, better show, Pick-Ups and Hiccups: an Improvised Love Affair, which - beginning at 10.45pm and lasting just over an hour - would make an ideal Christmas digestif for people who've been out to supper or an earlier show in the West End.

The couple have cannily complementary skills (she gets hilariously aggressive at his riling, grinning ease and quick, throwaway wit) and just the right rapport for presenting couples whose own rapport is in the process of unravelling. There are bravura touches. A sketch called "Conversation is a Two-Way Street", involving a man and his therapist, ends with Meyers rattling through a breakneck, perfect-recall recap of their entire prior rigmarole (incorporating all the mad audience suggestions) - to which Benjamin's bespectacled shrink simply adds the word "syndrome" and reaches for her fee.

One skit has the two of them playing a pair of jogging, happy-clappy teachers jollying their charges though such traumas as parental alcoholism. It neatly skewers the condescension of such an approach and is, coincidentally, a timely reminder that the worst offence that children's entertainment can commit in this festive season is that of patronising the audience.

You know the sort of thing. It's epitomised by the knowing, salacious wink over the kids' heads at the parents, as though the latter somehow needed to be apologised to for being forced into a theatre in the first place. Two shows that hit the right non-patronising note bang on, but in contrasting ways, are Sinbad, the delightful new family musical at the Watermill, Newbury, and the Young Vic's The Nativity, a remarkably arresting adaptation (by the director, David Farr) of the Christmas story, taken here from Mary's pregnancy (the poster is of a hugely distended belly) to the flight from Egypt.

Professionals might bear in mind that children come to see Yuletide productions at the same time as they are putting on their own at school, and they take these latter very seriously indeed. My wife was once involved in mounting a Nativity play and at the dress rehearsal was stopped dead in her tracks by the sound of harrowing sobs. A girl rushed up to her: "Miss, miss, it's one of the oxen - she thinks she's rubbish!" Which just goes to show from what early an age it is true that, no matter how marginal your role is, you still feel that life's spotlight is trained on you.

So it behoves professionals not to make children crestfallen about their own efforts by means of a parade of moneyed, seamless slickness. Sinbad and The Nativity adopt different, but equally valid, ways of avoiding this.

Played in the round in the Watermill's beautiful, intimate theatre, John Doyle's Sinbad, with its engaging cast of versatile actor-musicians, establishes a lovely atmosphere of comic complicity with the children.

Without ever sabotaging the illusion or sliding into cynicism, the performers squabble about who is going to play which part (no one wants to be the "wise old sage") and gently guys panto conventions. There is a lot of puckish, unpreachy Girl Power (girls get to play the Shah's two thuggish hitmen - "We do dead or alive, but mostly dead," they sing, in sawn-off mockney).

The terrible monster, the Burp - whose reverberant off-stage eructations had my youngest daughter half-way up her mother's jumper - turns out to be an adorable big softie with a high, piping voice ("I'm an ogre who's an ogre who eats men," he lilts). As a tubby little Scots Sinbad and a black-wigged Princess Jasmine, Cameron Jack and Kim Harwood have the kind of unforced openness with which any child would identify. Indeed, children come away enchanted, but with a faint feeling that they themselves have half-created this piece.

The inspired staging of the Young Vic's Nativity, by contrast, is a means of taking children from scratch to the outer limits of theatrical language in the space of two hours - a dizzying crash course. The show is performed on a central disc, with a radiating ramp and percussion instruments that dangle alluringly from the balconies, or are stowed like treasure beneath flaps on the stage.

The piece is structured so that, as the pregnant Mary (Nina Sosanya) and Toby Jones's lovely rumpled and runty Joseph journey to Bethlehem, biblical stories from the past (Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath, etc) are relived in order to inculcate, in turn, the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity.

The brilliant touches range from the gobsmackingly spectacular (Goliath is an amazing, skeletal giant made from 57 varieties of tin, who has to crane down to the tiny, plucky puppet playing David) to the drolly miniature, such as the idea of making Toby Sedgwick's ass a professorial type with a plummy accent - and really no ass at all when it comes to interpreting parables, despite his permanently surprised gawp and his Biggles-hat donkey ears.

It turns out that Mary and Joseph need all the reserves of faith, hope and charity they have collected, for when they hit Bethlehem, it's in the red-light district. A sinister tailcoated figure promises them a room and leads them down a creepy spiral staircase (a progression characteristically evoked by having them thread, again and again, through a tilted and revolving door-frame). I won't spoil things by revealing what happens, except to say that it owes as much to Scorsese as to St Matthew. Equally, the Massacre of the Innocents is more Kristallnacht than Christmas, with its terrifying atmosphere of probing torches and violation as the flaps on the stage are ripped open, releasing scarlet streamers of blood.

These sequences scared the life out of me, but seemed to leave the children around me stirred but not shaken. "Now can we have our sweets?" whined one little boy in row in front. Me, I tried to calm myself with a fantasy of introducing a traditional panto note to these sections. "Where did you say the Devil was, kids?" Joseph could ask. "He's right behind you!" "No he's not!" "Yes he is!" etc etc. It would give an intriguing new twist to the cry: "Get thee behind me, Satan."

Boom Chicago, Jermyn Street Theatre (0171-287 2875), to 19 Dec; `Sinbad', Watermill, Newbury (01635 46044) to 15 Jan; `The Nativity', Young Vic (0171-928 6363) to 29 Jan

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