Panto? It's so behind you! Try these instead ...

Preview: Alternative Christmas shows: Brian Logan is your guide to festive music and mirth that breaks the mould (and not a Widow Twankey in sight)

What is it to be this year? A panto, or candlelit Handel? If the prospect of either fills you with Scrooge-like ennui – is it just me, or has the bin-man only just taken away last year's turkey scraps? – then fear not.

For every tinsel-clad David Hasselhoff (Captain Hook in Bristol), and for every Syd Little and Cannon & Ball arising wraith-like from their primetime grave (in Wrexham and Lincoln respectively), there are festive shows to be found that prioritise imagination over audience participation, Christmas spirit over Cadbury's sponsorship and the x-factor over "X-Factor finalists Same Difference" (at Broxbourne Civic Hall. Book now!). So close your eyes, rub your lamp and – hey presto – enjoy our thinking person's guide to 2011's live Christmas entertainment.

Copyright Christmas & Duckie Christmas Market

Barbican Centre, London (0845 120 7511), 10 to 31 Dec

Having previously offered festive gaiety with performance art-meets-Moulin Rouge floorshow C'est Duckie, the so-called "Purveyors of Progressive Working-Class Entertainment" return with a timely critique of rampant consumerism, Copyright Christmas. It's a promenade show in which the audience explore a fictional superstore, where "saucy shopaholics, supermarket sweepers and sweatshop Santas" await. In the Barbican foyer throughout the run, Duckie curate a real-life "indie gift market" where the in-crowd can buy their retro gifts and hand-produced must-haves. In one visit to EC1, then, conspicuous consumption can be both satirised and indulged.

Night of 200 Billion Stars

Manchester Apollo (08444 777 677), 6 & 7 Dec, then touring

For those of an infidel disposition, bookish standup Robin Ince has been a godsend with his annual atheist cabaret Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. This year, Nine Lessons is back for a London run, while a companion show, Night of 200 Billion Stars, takes to the road, with a science-worshipping, God-dissing bill of wags and boffins including physics dreamboat Brian Cox, scourge of quack medicine Simon Singh, and comics Tim Minchin and Helen Arney.

The Heart of Robin Hood

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (0844 800 1110), to 7 Jan

It's not hard to see why the RSC selected Robin Hood as the myth to delight its audiences this Christmas. A hero who steals from the rich to give to the poor? I don't just want him on stage, I want this man as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Hansel and Gretel

The Junction, Cambridge (01223 511511), 7 Dec to 3 Jan

Who needs Oliviers? The theatre collective NIE won the 2011 Assitej Award for Artistic Excellence at the Assitej World Congress, a festival celebrating children's theatre, in Copenhagen. OK, so that's further beyond our radar than the work of, say, "rap superstar Vanilla Ice" (Peter Pan, Chatham). But it better guarantees a good Christmas show. This is the company's first festive event, but their terrific Tales from the Middle of Town, which squatted a derelict shop in Peterborough earlier this year, proved they can make mischievous and involving children's theatre. This one promises "serious child's play" featuring "child abandonment, murder, cannibalism and the medieval fear of stepmothers", which is hard to resist.

The Morpeth Carol

Bristol Old Vic (0117 987 7877), 8 to 17 Dec

"A cracked fable in the mould of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam," runs the blurb. The Morpeth Carol is the first festive show from the live art/theatre duo Sleepdogs, a Bristolian outfit hitherto best known for their experimental solo shows and short films. Now the city's venerable Old Vic has commissioned a 21st-century fairytale, in which a clapped-out Santa crash lands in a northern town, where he is befriended by a nine-year-old boy. The twist? The story is read to you in complete darkness by the cast of five actors, who are accompanied by "an immensely detailed web of sound effects, played live like a musical instrument".

A Christmas Carol

Film City, Glasgow (0845 330 3501), to 31 Dec

You could be sure that when the National Theatre of Scotland finally staged a Christmas show, it would do it a bit differently. So it proves. Director Graham McLaren's is no conventional revival of Dickens's spectral potboiler. It relocates the action to Scrooge's office, a Victorian counting house. Then there's the "eastern European aesthetic", which sees the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future represented by puppets. Then there's McLaren's desire to get across what he calls Dickens' "socio-political call for direct action". It plays in the former Govan Town Hall throughout December.

Southbank Winter Festival

Southbank Centre (0844 875 0073), to 11 Jan

Multiculturalism is the theme of the Southbank Centre's festive effort; David Cameron won't be pleased. Highlights include a Danish-Indian musical called The Bollywood Trip (12 to 18 Dec; a satire on the cult of novelty, called The Colour of Nonsense (19 to 30 Dec), from the brilliant film-theatre tricksters Forkbeard Fantasy; and A John Waters Christmas, a tart exercise in raconteurship by the cult B-movie director and so-called "Pope of Trash". The festival is headlined by Murmurs (24 Dec to 2 Jan, see Heads Up, page 71), the new circus-theatre romance from Charlie Chaplin's daughter Victoria, in which her daughter Aurelia plays "a woman fleeing from reality in a life filled with cardboard boxes". Come Boxing Day, we may all know how she feels.


Arches, Glasgow (0141 565 1000), 2 Dec to 3 Jan

Last year, Andy Manley put together a show called White for two- to four-year-olds. It bagged a clutch of awards, including Best Show for Young People at the UK Theatre Awards, and is now running in New York, where Sarah Jessica Parker numbers herself among its fans. (It's also at the Southbank Centre, London this Christmas.) Now, the Arches in Glasgow revives Manley's 2008 show Rudolf, itself an award nominee, which tells the story of "the reindeer with dreams" who doesn't know why he doesn't fit in. Such was White's popularity, parents elbowed aside their own toddlers for a ticket.

No Pressure to be Festive

Leicester Square Theatre, London (08448 733 433), 18 Dec

No Pressure to be Funny is Nick Revell and Alistair Barrie's monthly sort-of comedy night, launched in a south London pub earlier this year as the antidote to trite topical panel shows. Now it's in the West End, and staging a Christmas special with a crack guest-star cast of comedians and opinion-formers. Miles Jupp and Ken Livingstone? Check. Miranda Sawyer and Radio 4 musical comic Mitch Benn? Them too. It may not be festive, or even funny, but a night out with both Rich Hall and George Monbiot on the bill has got to be better than a night in with Mock the Week.

Barbershopera Apocalypse Noel!

Drum Theatre, Plymouth (01752 230440), 6 to 23 Dec

Expect only a light dusting of fake snow on this offering from the wise-cracking, close-harmony-singing quartet: Apocalypse Noel! is just a festive edition of the non-seasonal touring show Apocalypse No! It starts Christmassy enough, with angels delivering a message to God. But then things get terminal, as God responds to his angels' bad news from earth by commissioning the Four Horsemen to put humanity out of its misery. Jolly jokes and swoonsome tunes ensue, in a show which delighted critics on its London run last January, and has been on the road since.

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