Christmas theatre: it's more than child's play

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Treating children to the theatre shouldn't be an act of martyrdom. For those who blench at the thought of sitting through one more crude gag at the panto, or of shelling out a week's salary on tickets, here are some alternatives. The Unicorn in the West End regularly sets standards of design, lighting and stagecraft equal to anything in mainstream theatre, yet the best seats are just pounds 10. Stuart Paterson's Hansel & Gretel (above) - a drama with music rather than a musical - gives a new slant to the Grimm plot. "Spellbinding" and "brilliant" are the verdicts so far, not just of the kids, but their mums and dads. (Arts Theatre, WC2, 0171 836 3334 to 16 Jan.) The Young Vic spreads its net even wider with Arabian Nights (0171 928 6363, to 23 Jan), exotic tales acted out in a simple circle of sand with dazzling ingenuity. Go with or without children - it's fabulous. On an even more intimate scale, The Secret Garden, adapted for marionettes from the classic Edwardian novel, is a joy. If you thought puppet shows could only be cute, think again (Little Angel, N1, 0171-226 1787, to 31 Jan). Another literary adaptation is offered by the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon (0181 543 4888, to 6 Feb) with Charlotte's Web, which explores themes of fear, friendship and sacrifice through the touching tale of a pig who ducks his destiny as bacon. Outside London, the Orchard Theatre Co has an unusual adaptation of The Cinder Girl, harking back to an earlier Persian version of the tale (Theatre Royal Plymouth, 01752 267222, to 26 Dec; then touring the West Country). Up north, The Boy Who Fell Into a Book (Scarborough Stephen Joseph Theatre, 01723 370541, to 9 Jan) is a typically witty and ingenious concept from Alan Ayckbourn, and The Nutcracker (Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse, 0113 213 7700, to 23 Jan), is an intriguing play which goes back to Hoffmann's original tale. And finally, a tip for those whose offspring threaten to self-combust over the holiday. The phenomenal Stomp (Roundhouse, NW1, 0171 420 0171) has just extended its run until 17 Jan. That'll give them some ideas about what to do with all that energy.