The 50 Best: How to avoid the Christmas turkeys

A trip with the family to see a show is as much a part of the festive season as Christmas pudding and brandy butter. But there's more on offer these days than ever before, with hundreds of theatre and dance events to choose from. So, helped by our expert panel, we've rounded up the best in live entertainment this Christmas, from ballet to puppet shows, and from fairy tales to feminist panto. Enjoy yourself? Oh yes you will ...

n THEATRE IN LONDON

n THEATRE OUTSIDE LONDON

n TRADITIONAL PANTOS

n DANCE EVENTS

n EVENTS WITH A TWIST

THE EXPERTS

l This week's 50 Best was compiled with the help of The Independent's theatre and dance critics. Jenny Gilbert is the dance critic of the Independent

on Sunday, and has three children,

aged 7, 11 and 12. Paul Taylor and David Benedict are the theatre critics of the Independent. Paul also has three children, aged 7, 9 and 11.

NOTE: While every effort has been made to check all details of the 50 Best, readers are advised always to call venues before setting out.

NEXT WEEK: THE 50 BEST PARTY DRESSES

1

HANSEL & GRETEL, UNICORN THEATRE

If it's musical theatre for children rather than pantomime you're after, the Unicorn delivers the goods. This year's offering is written by Stuart Paterson - "the king of quality children's shows," according to David Benedict. It was Paterson who did last year's Cinderella for the Unicorn, as well as the excellent Beauty & the Beast. His Hansel & Gretel, premiered at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum last Christmas, was declared "a wonderful play" by The Sunday Times.

Where & when: at the Arts Theatre, WC2 (0171-836 3334) to 16 Jan.

Age range: 6+. How much: pounds 5-pounds 10.

2

THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE, STRATFORD

The story of what happened when Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stepped inside a wardrobe has enthralled children since CS Lewis published the first of the "Narnia" books in 1950. Adapted by poet Adrian Mitchell, and directed by the RSC's Adrian Noble, this is the first family Christmas show on Stratford's main stage for 30 years: "They'll be pulling out all the stops," predicts David Benedict.

Where & when: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 295623) to 27 Feb.

Age range: 6+. How much: adults pounds 10-pounds 30; kids pounds 7.50-pounds 22.

3

MOTHER GOOSE, BRIGHTON

Brighton regularly supplies good, solid, end-of-the-pier entertainment at this time of year. Chunky Christopher Biggins plays the Dame, Derek Griffiths is the villain, Antony Johns both stars and directs, and Heir of Insanity supply the acrobatics.

Where & when: Brighton Theatre Royal (01273 328488) 10 Dec to 10 Jan.

Age range: all.

How much: pounds 7.50-pounds 12.50, concs pounds 2 off.

4

LA FILLE MAL GARDEE, ROYAL BALLET

Frederick Ashton's ballet is "one of the few staples of the repertoire that can really be called family entertainment - a hit with children and adults," says Jenny Gilbert. This gently comic story of rural romance, set to a magical 1828 score by Louis Herold, includes such spirited delights as may-pole and clog dances, hoofing farmyard animals, and pantomime fun in the travesty role of Widow Simone.

Where & when: Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) 29 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 10-pounds 48, under-18s half price at matinees.

5

THE SECRET GARDEN, LONDON N1

The Little Angel is one of the hidden joys of Islington, and a world- acclaimed centre of puppetry. The new in-house production is an adaptation - sumptuous by puppet standards - of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic Edwardian novel. "If you thought puppet shows could only be cute, hurry to the Little Angel," says Jenny Gilbert. "Spellbinding theatre on a miniature scale."

Where & when: Little Angel, Dagmar Passage, London N1 (0171-226 1787) 5 Dec to 31 Jan.

Age range: one version for 3+, one for 5+.

How much: pounds 6.50 adults, pounds 5 kids & concs.

6

CHARLOTTE'S WEB, POLKA THEATRE

Based on the book by EB White, this is the tale of how Wilbur, a piglet, is saved by his friend, a spider, from the fate of other nice fat pigs. Far from cosy, the story brilliantly explores themes of fear, friendship and sacrifice, here with added music and lyrics by Charles Strouse, the composer of Annie. As David Benedict says: "With a book as good as this, the show can't go wrong." Note Polka's excellent facilities, including a children's restaurant.

Where & when: Wimbledon, SW19 (0181-543 4888) to 6 Feb. Age range: 6+. How much: pounds 10, pounds 7 conc, pounds 32 family ticket.

7

MARTIN GUERRE, LEEDS

After its West End run, this Cameron Mackintosh musical appears in an "entirely reconceived" version up north, with Conall Morrison directing and David Bolger as choreographer: "If anyone can make it work, these two can," says David Benedict. Set in medieval France, this is the tale of a man returning from war to find himself a victim of mistaken identity. Words and songs by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (of Les Mis fame).

Where & when: West Yorks Playhouse, Leeds (0113-213 7700) Mon to 13 Feb. Age range: older kids & adults. How much: pounds 10-pounds 24.

8

JACK & THE BEANSTALK, WATFORD

Comic actor Roy Hudd, a walking encyclopedia of pantomime tradition, is the creative force behind Watford's productions every year. When not appearing, or directing, he always produces the script, incorporating tried and tested variety gags and slapstick which hark back to the days of Vaudeville. "If it's tradition you want, Watford has it," says Paul Taylor.

Where & when: Palace Theatre, Watford (01923 225671) 5 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: all. How much: pounds 5-pounds 13.

9

THE NUTCRACKER, BIRMINGHAM ROYAL BALLET

Sir Peter Wright's version of The Nutcracker is a guaranteed Christmas hit, with all the usual features such as Clara's party, the Rat King, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker doll. BRB's is "the most traditional and sumptuous of Nutcrackers," says Jenny Gilbert. "A good choice for first-time ballet-goers."

Where & when: Birmingham Hippodrome (0121-622 7486) 4-16 Dec; Lyceum, London WC2 (0870-606 3441) 22 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 8-pounds 36 in Birmingham; pounds 17.50-pounds 59.50 in London, kids pounds 5 off.

10

DNA CABARET, LONDON N1

"On the continent, puppetry for adults is a popular form of fringe theatre," says Jenny Gilbert. "Here it's rare. And a marionette show that makes adults laugh till they cry? This really is something different." Dynamic New Animation (DNA) present a variety of comedy sketches and stunts that enter the realms of the surreal. "The Pulp Fiction of puppetry," according to one review.

Where & when: Little Angel, Dagmar Passage, London N1 (0171-226 1787) 4 & 5 Dec.

Age range: 12 to adult. How much: pounds 7.50 adults, pounds 5 kids & concs.

11

HAROUN & THE SEA OF STORIES, NATIONAL THEATRE

Originally written as a bedtime story for his son, Salman Rushdie's book has drawn comparisons with classics such as Alice and 1001 Arabian Nights. Here it gets the stage treatment from the team that created the fabulous Grimm Tales: director Tim Supple, designer Melly Still, composer Adrian Lee. It's the tale of a master storyteller, Rashid, who loses his skill. His son Haroun embarks on a magical journey to restore it, culminating in a dramatic battle. "Richly inventive," says Paul Taylor. "Be warned that it's three hours long," cautions David Benedict.

Where & when: Cottesloe, SE1 (0171-928 2252)

Age range: 8+. How much: pounds 12-pounds 18; family groups pounds 15 adults, pounds 8 kids.

12

THE NUTCRACKER, LEEDS

Better known through Tchaikovsky's ballet, the story of The Nutcracker is based on one of ETA Hoffmann's tales, widely read throughout Europe. This new family play by Michael Birch goes back to the source to present a tale of transformation and discovery - "an excellent idea" in the view of David Benedict. This Drosselmeyer is no twinkle-eyed uncle, but an evil toymaker planning world domination with the aid of a magic spell. If only he can get his hands on the missing ingredient - the spirit of a girl!

Where & when: Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113- 213 7700) 16 Dec to 23 Jan.

Age range: junior. How much: pounds 14.50-pounds 8.50.

13

CINDERELLA, STRATFORD EAST

"Good, traditional, genuinely funny pantomimes are an annual feature at this address," says Paul Taylor. Stratford East's pantos are "the jewel in East London's crown" according to Time Out. Officially, the theatre is closed for refurbishment (which it badly needs), but since work has been delayed, the show will go on in situ. A typically young, multi-cultural cast includes Olivier Award-nominated Paul Keating as Buttons. The audience is the liveliest you'll find anywhere.

Where & when: Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15 (0181-534 0310) 1 Dec to 23 Jan.

Age range: all. How much: pounds 5-pounds 15.

14

THE NUTCRACKER, ENB

English National Ballet has been performing a version of this ballet every Christmas since 1951. Jenny Gilbert comments: "Here, Derek Deane has totally revamped the feel of the piece, while retaining all the familiar features, and if it's not definitive, then it's certainly fun." The party scenes are all SW11 interiors and little black dresses, and Dr Drosselmeyer magics up a life-size Barbie doll, a Michael Jackson and a Transformer toy for the Claras and Fritzes who have everything.

Where & when: Bristol Hippodrome (0117-929 9444) 1-5 Dec; then London Coliseum, WC2 (0171-632 8300) 15 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: 5 to adult. How much: pounds 8-pounds 29.50 in Bristol; pounds 2.50-pounds 39.50 in London.

15

GREAT CHRISTMAS PUDDING RACE, COVENT GARDEN

Be entertained while you shop. For the 18th year running, celebrities and individuals in fancy dress will conduct a relay race around the East Piazza in Covent Garden, avoiding novelty obstacles while carrying a Christmas pudding on a tray. The winning team will the Pudding Trophy. Entertainment. Further events will take place around the race.

Where & when: Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2; 5 Dec, 11.30am.

Age range: all. How much: free, collection for Cancer Research Campaign.

16

PETER PAN, ROYAL NATIONAL THEATRE

John Caird and Trevor Nunn's highly praised production returns to the National for a second season, following its sold-out four-month run last year. "This show looks very, very lovely," says David Benedict. "And it's got the best flying in Britain. It'll steal your heart away." "A glorious revival," cheers Paul Taylor. "Gives you a lump in your throat the size of one of Captain Hook's cannonballs."

Where & when: Olivier, London SE1 (0171-928 2252). 17 Dec to 20 Feb.

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 8-pounds 27, standing pounds 5.

17

A CHRISTMAS CAROL, BIRMINGHAM

Adapted from Charles Dickens by director Michael Bogdanov, Birmingham Rep's version of this Christmas evergreen promises to be richly atmospheric and rooted in genuine Victorian feeling. The story famously celebrates the power of humanity in overcoming the miserable forces of stinginess and spite, with flights (literally, in this production) into the supernatural. "With Bogdanov at the helm, this one should be really splashy and bold," says David Benedict.

Where & when: Birmingham Repertory Theatre (0121-236 4455) 11 Dec to 16 Jan.

Age range: junior to adult. How much: pounds 7.25-pounds 19, family tickets from pounds 23.

18

DICK WHITTINGTON, HACKNEY

The ornate, baroque, be-curlicued interior of Frank Matcham's Hackney Empire is hugely atmospheric and worth a visit in itself. Hackney also boasts London's biggest traditional pantomime, and this year's production takes on a special relevance in view of the Mayor of London issue. The cast includes Anita Dobson, camping it up as King Rat, and the brilliant Clive Rowe as Sarah the Cook. Susie McKenna is both writer and director of the show. "A great team: should be a riot," predicts David Benedict.

Where & when: Hackney Empire, London E8 (0181-985 2424) 10 Dec to 10 Jan.

Age range: all. How much: pounds 6.50-pounds 15.50.

19

A CHRISTMAS CAROL, HULL

"A rich plum pudding of a show, which is theatre, musical and ballet all wrapped up in one," according to Jenny Gilbert. Devised by the late Christopher Gable for Northern Ballet Theatre in 1992, it's been filmed by the BBC, and been a box-office hit for the company around the country ever since. The choreography is by Massimo Morricone; the splendid Dickensian sets and costumes are by Lez Brotherston; and Carl Davis arranged the music. The audience even gets to join in.

Where & when: Hull New Theatre (01482 226655) 8-12 Dec.

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 9-pounds 23, Thurs matinee half price.

20

TATE GALLERY CHRISTMAS TREE

Each year, the Patrons of New Art commission a different artist to "decorate" a tree, which dominates the Tate Gallery rotunda throughout the festive season. This year, the honours go to Richard Wilson, famous for his sump- oil installation at the Saatchi Gallery, so don't go expecting any old bit of spruce. Wilson's tree will be a sculpture using industrial and found materials - "a metal tree-skeleton suspended within shelving units covered in glitter," according to an inside source.

Where & when: Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) 15 Dec to 6 Jan, 10am-5.50pm daily.

Age range: all. How much: free.

21

ARABIAN NIGHTS, YOUNG VIC

Every Christmas production this theatre has shown in recent years has been heaped with accolades from the critics. This is the home of the stunning Grimm Tales, More Grimm Tales, and an adaptation of The Jungle Book that had the Daily Telegraph's critic leave the theatre "in a state approaching awe". Now, new director Dominic Cooke faithfully adapts a selection of tales from 1001 Arabian Nights, peopled by exotic characters such as Queen Scheherazade, Ala Al-Din, evil genies and foolish thieves - and all set to live music. Guaranteed to spark the imagination.

Where & when: Young Vic, SE1 (0171-928 6363).

Age range: 6+. How much: pounds 15, concs pounds 12, pounds 8.

22

WIZARD OF OZ, NEWBURY

The unique selling point of the Watermill is its enchanting waterside setting, and the really intimate theatrical experience you can get in its small auditorium. The whole place is heavenly, and the lure of special Christmas teas and pre- and post-show suppers in the next-door barn make it a must to visit, whatever is on the bill. This season, John Doyle directs the best-loved MGM musical of all time - "the perfect Christmas cockle-warmer" according to David Benedict.

Where & when: Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, nr Newbury, Berks (01635 46044) 2 Dec to 16 Jan.

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 5-pounds 14, family ticket pounds 25-pounds 40.

23

ALADDIN, CLWYD

Billed as a "wok'n'roll" pantomime (groan), Clwyd's stir-fry of a show comes with a garnish of old Top-10 hits: "I'm a Believer", "You Can't Hurry Love", "Dancin' in the Street", and many more. In addition, of course, there are the regular awful puns, audience participation and physical pranks.

Where & when: Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Mold, Clwyd (01352 755114) 11 Dec to 23 Jan.

Age range: all. How much: pounds 15, conc pounds 2 off, students & kids pounds 7.50.

24

CINDERELLA, RFH

Frederick Ashton's Cinderella was the first full-length ballet by a British choreographer, and has been a firm favourite since it was made for the Royal Ballet in 1948. Set to Prokofiev's darkly glittering score, the familiar tale emerges in a brilliant sequence of dances which combine the precision of Russian classical tradition with the emotional subtlety of the English style. Exquisite solos and pas de deux contrast with spectacular ensembles (as in the ballroom scene) and a pantomime touch in the two (male) ugly sisters. "But don't be deceived," warns Jenny Gilbert. "This isn't really for children." Where & when: Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) 22-26 Dec. Age range: 10+. How much: pounds 10-pounds 48, under- 18s half price at matinees.

25

CHRISTMAS SPECIAL RADIO AUDIENCE

Tap into some festive cheer by becoming part of a BBC Christmas Special. Radio programmes requiring a live audience (hearty chortlers especially appreciated) are as follows: Radio 4's The Now Show on 17 Dec, and Just a Minute on 18 Dec; and Radio 2's The News Huddlines. Apply in writing to: Radio Ticket Unit, Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London W1A 1AA, enclosing SAE.

Where & when: Broadcasting House, London W1 (for R4 shows); Hippodrome at Golders Green, London NW11 (for R2); dates above.

Age range: adult. How much: free.

26

JESUS, MY BOY, APOLLO

A bit off the beaten track, this one. Stand-up comic John Dowie has written an hour-long, one-man play about a woefully overlooked figure of the Christmas story: Jesus's bewildered Jewish dad. Tom Conti (above) plays Joseph, whose complaint can be summed up thus: "It was the greatest love story ever told, and I was in it ... And then what happened? A child was born. In the hierarchy of families, the father is placed thus: Mother, Son, Donkey, Dad." "Conti fans will lap it up," predicts David Benedict.

Where & when: Apollo, W1 (0171-494 5070) 7 Dec for at least 12 weeks.

Age range: adult. How much: pounds 5.50-pounds 18.50.

27

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, LEICESTER

"Is it wise to mess with a masterpiece?" wonders David Benedict. "Twyla Tharp got the worst reviews of her life when she directed it on Broadway." But this classic MGM musical is a great yarn, the dance routines are fabulous, the songs are catchy ("Make 'em Laugh", "Moses Supposes", "Gotta Dance"), and isn't it a relief to get away from Christmassy themes once in a while? Gavin Lee (last seen in Oklahoma! at the NT) takes the leading role of Don Lockwood; Paul Kerryson directs.

Where & when: Haymarket, Leicester (0116 253 9797).

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 9-pounds 19.50.

28

ALI BABA & THE 40 THIEVES, CHIPPING NORTON

Christmas is something from another, pre-Teletubbies age at this small Cotswolds theatre, which has been staging traditional pantomimes for almost a quarter of a century. Murals in the bar and foyer depict actors who have taken the parts over the years. Chipping Norton pantos are pure story: "No TV gags, no smut. And they don't go making jokes to the parents above the kids' heads," promises Paul Taylor. Best recommendation of all: this is the one Paul's own children go to every year.

Where & when: The Theatre, Chipping Norton, Oxon (01608 642350) Dec to 16 Jan.

Age range: all. How much: pounds 7.75-pounds 14.75.

29

THE SNOWMAN, LONDON WC2

"Nothing delights the under-eights more than Raymond Briggs's snowman story," comments Jenny Gilbert, "and this spectacular dance-theatre show wins over the video hands down, however many million times you've seen it." Directed by Bill Alexander and choreographed by Robert North, Birmingham Rep's adaptation features Howard Blake's memorable music and lyrics, including the choirboy standard "Walking in the Air", but is otherwise wordless. Infant jaws are guaranteed to drop as the boy and his crystallised friend soar over the heads of the audience.

Where & when: Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (0171-863 8222) 8 Dec to 30 Jan.

Age range: 3-12. How much: pounds 7.50-pounds 30.

30

BRER RABBIT MEETS BRER SANTA, LITTLE VENICE

The floating venue is half the joy of this puppet show, a stone's throw from Marble Arch. Once you've found the mooring on the canal, you have to climb below deck to get to the action, performed on a tiny stage. The current production is surely one of the sweetest shows in London, featuring the famous Brer Rabbit in a seasonal adventure not short on surprises. "Perfect for small ones; just the right scale," approves Jenny Gilbert.

Where & when: Puppet Theatre Barge, Little Venice, London W9 (0171-249 6876) term-time weekends only; 19 Dec to 3 Jan daily. Age range: 3-8. How much: pounds 6 adults, pounds 5.50 kids & concs.

31

CINDERELLA, LYRIC

"With director Neil Bartlett joining up with the incredibly talented team behind Shockheaded Peter, this could be the hit of the season," predicts David Benedict. Steeped in the traditions of 19th-century pantoland and touched by the spirit of Angela Carter, velvet curtains will part, cardboard scenery will wobble, carriages, clocks and custard pies will collide. Seven actors and illusionist Paul Kieve conjure up a dark and glittering world of puppets and black humour.

Where & when: Lyric, Hammersmith, W6 (0181-741 2311) to 9 Jan.

Age range: 8+. How much: pounds 5-pounds 18.

32

A CHRISTMAS CAROL, BRISTOL

"Oh! But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, was Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!" Dickens's cautionary tale gets a new adaptation from Bristol Old Vic director Andy Hay -- a reading that keeps closely to the original text, and effectively strips the story of the chocolate-box glitz that Dickens stagings usually accrue. This is a Victorian London as dark and grim as you could wish for.

Where & when: Bristol Old Vic (0117-987 7877) on now to 5 Dec.

Age range: 8+. How much: pounds 5-pounds 19.

33

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBYN HOOD, LONDON WC1

Note the spelling. The Drill Hall's legendary all-women pantomime, much patronised by London University students, has no truck with gender stereotypes. In fact the flavour of the jokes is often frankly sexually subversive. Written and directed, as always, by Nona Shepphard, this one turns girlie glamour on its head with characters such as Big Joan and Prioress Tuckburger.

Where & when: Drill Hall, London WC1 (0171-637 8270) 2 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: adults & right-on kids.

How much: pounds 10

34

STOMP, LONDON NW1

Since its debut in 1991, this British percussion-and-dance show has played in 23 countries to six million people. Without a word of dialogue, it delivers 100 minutes of pure theatricality, using boots, bins, brushes, paper bags, sand, washbasins, junk and plumbers' plungers to hammer out a pulsating symphony which ranges in mood from the savage to the celestial. "Utterly exhilarating," says Jenny Gilbert. "No one with an ounce of rhythm in their little toe can fail to love this."

Where & when: The Roundhouse, London NW1 (0171-420 0171) till 27 Dec.

Age range: 7 to adult.

How much: pounds 10-pounds 20.

35

IF I WERE LIFTED UP FROM EARTH, LINCOLN'S INN

Neither music drama nor musical, but more of a passion play, AandBC's extraordinary production played to great acclaim at BAC last Easter, and is revived in the splendid setting of the Lincoln's Inn chapel, built in 1620. The text is William Tyndale's 1534 translation of the New Testament (the first piece of modern English prose), and the actors and musicians dance, chant, and sing around the audience, who will be seated in the original Elizabethan pews.

Where & when: Lincoln's Inn Chapel, London WC2 (0870 870 1023) 4-9 Dec.

Age range: older kids to adults. How much: free, but collection on the door.

36

THE KING & I, BAC

Following its success last year with The Sound of Music, Battersea Arts Centre has gone for large-scale schmaltz again, fielding a cast of 50 despite the constraints of the venue. "Director Phil Willmott has made a career from staging big musicals on miniscule budgets in spaces the size of most people's toilets," notes David Benedict. "London hasn't seen this show for a while, so it could be another hit for BAC".

Where & when: BAC, SW11 (0171-223 2223) till 10 Jan.

Age range: 6+.

How much: pounds 12 adults, pounds 8 concs, pounds 6 kids.

37

THE BOY WHO FELL INTO A BOOK, SCARBOROUGH

The latest in a line of excellent plays for children by Alan Ayckbourn, this is the story of Kevin, a boy who always has his nose in a book. One night, he dozes off at a crucial moment in his latest detective story, and wakes up face to face with the sleuth, Rockfist Slim. To get Kevin back to bed, the pair must work their through the other books on the shelf, including Grimm's Fairytales, Kidnapped and Chess for Beginners. David Benedict says: "With Ayckbourn at the helm, this promises to be thoroughly inventive."

Where & when: Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (01723 370541) 3 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: 7-12.

How much: pounds 9 adults, pounds 4.50 kids.

38

RED RIDING HOOD, DEPTFORD

Red Riding Hood embarks on a long, spooky journey to deliver Granny's pipe tobacco and favourite Brazilian chocolates. But the creeping, crawling, sometimes flying inhabitants of the forest are not going to put up with Granny's eco-unsound habits for much longer. A traditional story with a modern twist, including a panto-dame "granny". David Benedict says: "London Bubble are a community theatre company on great form. Their past Christmas shows have been excellent."

Where & when: Albany Theatre, Deptford, London SE8 (0181-692 4446) 4 Dec to 2 Jan.

Age range: all.

How much: pounds 9, pounds 5 concs, pounds 25 family ticket.

39

ALEGRIA, ROYAL ALBERT HALL

Pens have run dry in the search for adjectives to sum up Cirque du Soleil's circus shows. "Achingly beautiful," noted The Evening Standard; "An orgy of delight," declared The Sunday Times. Cirque's fourth Christmas season at the Albert Hall is a reprise of Alegria, first seen here in 1997. Acrobats, contortionists, acrobats, aerialists, fire dancers and clowns perform in a setting of gothic extravagance, to a backing of live Euro-rock. "Some may find the style OTT," says Jenny Gilbert. "But the human skills on display are awesome. The only snag is the ticket price."

Where & when: Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212). 5-24 Jan.

Age range: 5+. How much: pounds 23-pounds 45.

40

LOCKERBIE ANNIVERSARY CONCERT

Not Christmassy, not celebratory, but a high-class concert in Westminster Cathedral to mark the 10th anniversary of the plane crash which killed 270 people. The free concert, given by the Hilliard Ensemble and Fretwork, will feature a selection of early music by Busnois, Purcell and Gombert, as well as a work written 1989 by Gavin Bryars in memory of his sound engineer, Bill Cadman, who was killed on the fated flight.

Where & when: Westminster Cathedral, London SW1 (0171-638 8891) 21 Dec.

Age range: adult.

How much: free, but must be booked in advance.

41

THE DEMON HEADMASTER, PLEASANCE THEATRE

The fantastically popular children's novel by Gillian Cross became a fantastically popular television series, and now it's been turned into a musical. Since The Demon Headmaster first appeared on the box two years ago the evil head of St Campion's Comprehensive has battled with the members of SPLAT in two further series. The musical promises new adventures. "With material as popular as this, it can hardly fail," predicts Paul Taylor.

Where & when: Pleasance Theatre, N7 (0171-609 1800) 4 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: 6-14.

How much: pounds 12-pounds 5.

42

THE CINDER GIRL, PLYMOUTH

The southwest's popular touring company has come up with an intriguing take on Cinderella, going back to an earlier Arabian version of the story. Instead of a Grimm household, the play is set in a sandy desert, the story- tellers gathered in a Bedouin tent. Written and directed by Bill Buffery, the story contains all the ingredients for a magical journey: a girl in rags, a dashing prince, a helpful camel, an evil sorceress and lashings of Turkish delight. Exotic music and songs by Tim Nordon.

Where & when: The Drum, Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222) 8-26 Dec, then touring to Frome, Bideford, Wimborne, Falmouth and Minehead.

Age range: all. How much: pounds 8.50 adults, pounds 4.50/pounds 5 concs.

43

MOTHER GOOSE, BRISTOL

Independent columnist Miles Kington is a big fan of Bristol Old Vic's pantomimes: "I don't remember seeing pantos as good in all the 20 years I lived in London," he wrote last year. They're "not stuffed with small-time TV names and larded with references to TV commercials." These are home-grown shows, devised every year by actor Chris Harris, who, Kington says, is the funniest dame he ever saw. This year's looks set to lay the theatre another golden egg.

Where & when: Bristol Old Vic (0117-987 7877) 11 Dec to 30 Jan.

Age range: all.

How much: pounds 16-pounds 3.

44

QUATRE MAINS, HAMMERSMITH

You wouldn't think two pairs of hands and a table top would make a night at the theatre, but when those hands belong to Andrew Dawson (of the West End hit Thunderbirds FAB) and Jozef Houben (of Theatre de Complicite), they become evocative tools. The duo use them as an artist uses a paint- brush, to play with perspective and mood, evoking flowers, monsters, amorous passions and lost love. "A minimalist wonder," says Jenny Gilbert. "The perfect antidote to seasonal excess."

Where & when: Lyric Theatre Studio, Hammersmith, London W6 (0181-748 9133) 14 Dec to 2 Jan.

Age range: 12 to adult. How much: pounds 9.50, conc pounds 5; Mon pounds 5

45

BOXING NIGHT MURDER MYSTERY, WARWICK

Who wants to make a date with Prof Plum with the dagger in the library, or Mrs White with the rope in the hall? Come to that, who killed Father Christmas? This Edwardian country hotel is offering a special games night with festive meal included in the price. Numbers are strictly limited, but more murder mystery nights are planned.

Where & when: Ardencote Manor Hotel & Country Club, Claverdon, Warwick (01926 843111) 26 Dec.

Age range: older children & adults.

How much: pounds 29.50 per person.

46

INTO THE WOODS, DONMAR

Here are Jack and his beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and a host of other fairytale characters, but this is no pantomime. It's a revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's very adult musical morality tale, which exposes the stories' dark and nightmarish flipside. The woods of the title represent the dark broodings of the unconscious, and the show itself is a journey of self-discovery, for both characters and audience. "Vividly demonstrates that musicals can be intelligent," says David Benedict.

Where & when: Donmar Warehouse, WC2 (0171-369 1732) till 13 Feb.

Age range: adult.

How much: pounds 15-pounds 27.50.

47

THE GOLEM, NEW END

Mary Shelley is said to have based her Frankenstein on this medieval Jewish legend. Here it's retold in Sylvia Freedman's poignant musical drama. Like the monstrous offspring it inspired, The Golem is a being made by man in order to help the weak and oppressed, but it yearns for human emotions and threatens to break the bonds of its enslavement. Man has to find the moral strength to destroy his prized creation. Brennan Street directs and Cathy Shostak - who also wrote the music for The Demon Headmaster, see No 41 - did the songs.

Where & when: New End Theatre, London NW3 (0171-794 0022) 9 Dec to 17 Jan. Age range: 8+. How much: pounds 10, concs pounds 6, family ticket pounds 28.

48

CINDERELLA, BIRMINGHAM

"Are there still any Danny la Rue fans out there?" asks David Benedict. If so, you know where to go." Don't expect any subtlety in this one. Glitz and schmaltz go big time in Paul Elliott productions, and this one is a giant jamboree of popular culture. Even Postman Pat gets a look in.

Where & when: Birmingham Hippodrome (0121 622 7486) 23 Dec to 20 Feb.

Age range: all.

How much: pounds 9.50-pounds 17.50.

49

THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, WEST END

It's some 20 years since the D'Oyly Carte company were last in the West End, so it's not surprising they've chosen the best-loved of all the Savoy Operas for their comeback, following a national tour. Gilbert and Sullivan's daft tale of pirate kings, policemen and the pretty daughters of a Modern Major General is jam-packed with hummable songs, including the doleful "A policeman's lot is not a happy one (happy one)". Deprived G&S fans will make a beeline for this.

Where & when: Queen's Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2 (0171 494 5040) 18 Dec to 9 Jan.

Age range: 10+.

How much: pounds 12.50-pounds 29.50.

50

BOXING DAY DIP, FOLKESTONE

Mad dogs and Englishmen do some strange things in the name of charity. Every Boxing Day for the past 20 years a bunch of foolhardy types get rigged up in fancy dress and immerse themselves in the freezing English Channel. One year a team went in with a canoe built round them; another bunch of friends from a pub took with them a dining table and chairs. The host went in with a trayful of champagne and served them at sea. Last year a crowd of 600 turned up to watch.

Where & when: On the beach at Folkestone, Kent, starting 10am-11am, depending on tide.

Age range: all.

How much: free.

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