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

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones