If Cinders is going to the ball...

...then so shall you! And what a choice there is across the country: from a flapper Cinderella to a deep, dark Hans Christian Andersen tale - and not forgetting that old festive favourite, the psychedelic neo-medieval folk-rock wig-out. Ladies, gentlemen and children, Jenny Gilbert presents a guide to the finest Christmas shows available to humanity
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Duckie: The Class Club

Duckie's last cabaret at the Barbican two years ago won four awards, including an Olivier for Best Entertainment. This one follows a novel format: you choose your style of at-table entertainment according to what you want to eat. A "lower-class" menu buys you a plateload from the fun'n'festive carvery; the "upper class" option brings you game, figgy pudding, with floor show to match. See interview.

Barbican Pit, London EC2 (0845 1207 500), Sat to 7 Jan, £14.99 or £40 meal included

A Pleasing Terror: Two Ghost Stories by M R James

It's 70 years since the death of M R James, the medieval scholar turned ghost writer. Every Christmas he would perform new tales, by candlelight, to friend in his rooms in King's College, Cambridge. Robert Lloyd Parry revives this tradition performing two of James's eeriest stories. In "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" a young antiquary discovers the devil in the details of a medieval book. In "The Mezzotint" a ghoulish revenge is enacted in a work of art before the gaze of a museum curator.

New End Theatre, London NW3 (0870 033 2733), Sat to 6 Jan, £8-£12

Kiki & Herb: Christmas Happens

The Reindeer, located in the shell of an old brewery in London's East End, is a "pop-up" eatery and theatre, designed to vanish without trace after 23 December, when its effects will be auctioned off. While you'll be lucky to bag a table in the restaurant, tickets are still available for the show. Top billing goes to New York's self-styled "cabaret terrorists" Kiki and Herb. The creation of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, Kiki is a washed up chanteuse who regales audiences with tales of her disastrous life peppered with alcoholic variants on Christmas classics and unsuitable pop songs (Eminem, Britney Spears etc) while the faithful Herb accompanies on piano.

The Reindeer, London E1 (0845 094 2996), to Sat, £15-£35

Family

The Mermaid

Forget the saccharine Disney film. The original Hans Christian Andersen story is as dark as the ocean is deep, and this co-production between Danish theatre company Kaleidoskop and Sweden's Cirkus Cirkor aims to restore some of that melancholy mystery. Transporting audiences from a populous sea-bed to the dry land of modern Copenhagen, it draws on physical theatre, contemporary dance and aerial skills. Recommended for age 8+.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 3800 400), 23 Dec to 7 Jan, £12-£27.50

Cinderella

Hackney Empire has a reputation for bringing West End musical glitz to the East End, and its panto is often rated London's best. This year's stars Donna Steele (formerly Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie) as a 1920s-style Cinders who sends her Prince Chaming "searching from Islington on Thames (really?) all to the way to Bethnal On The Green" and who travels by flying coach driven by rapping rodents.

Hackney Empire, London E8 (020 8985 2424), to 13 Jan, £8-£18.50

Ennio Marchetto

What do scissors, paper, Paris Hilton and Santa Claus have in common? They've all featured in the performances of "living cartoon" Ennio Marchetto. Fashioning his own spectacular paper costumes, Marchetto has a repertoire of more than 200 fictional characters and real-life celebrities, morphing with lightning speed from Madonna to Snow White to Rudoph in a virtuoso display of wit and dexterity. Recommended for age 8+.

Purcell Room, London SE1 (0870 3800 400), 23-31 Dec, £15

The Enchanted Pig

The Young Vic has the strongest Christmas shows record of any London theatre, and at last it's back in its home after having the builders in. The new auditorium puts the stage right at the heart of the audience, making it a great place for kids to feel totally involved. The Enchanted Pig is a sung-through musical created by The Opera Group, and its hero is, of course, really a prince. His future bride has to pursue him beyond the ends of the earth to release him from the hairy, grunting curse.

Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7928 6363), to 27 Jan, £9.50-£24.50

The Flint Street Nativity

Adults play infants in this unique family comedy by Tim Firth, author of the film Calendar Girls and the West End hit Neville's Island. The run-up to Flint Street Primary School's nativity play is awash with classroom jealousies, blackmail, unrequited love, and Christmas carols mangled as only children know how. All the fun of seeing your favourite soap-star actor with their head wrapped in a tea-towel. See interview.

Liverpool Playhouse (0151 709 4776), to 20 Jan, £5-£18

Rapunzel

Battersea Arts Centre marks its 25th birthday by getting back to basics in this collaboration with the excellent Kneehigh theatre company. The subject matter is a far cry from the wacky BAC Christmas hits of recent years. This is undisguised, traditional fairytale, but true to a theatre that holds a Peter Brook Theatre award, it's rendered both feisty and poetic through puppetry, music and image. Suitable for ages seven and up.

BAC, London SW11 (020 7223 2223), to 14 Jan, £20

The Wizard of Oz

This is the co-production that wowed audiences last year at Birmingham Rep, when The Independent listed it among its Five Best Plays. Only a fool would want to tinker with the story, or the songs from the cherished film, and Rachel Kavanaugh's staging has all the elements you want to hear. On designated nights the audience is encouraged to sing along, and to come dressed as a favourite character.

West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), to 3 Feb, £10.50-£23.50

Fiddler on the Roof

Henry Goodman plays Tevye, the tradition-loving Jewish father in this classic Broadway package that has so many great tunes and lyrics you'll be singing them all next year: "If I Were a Rich Man", "Tradition", "Matchmaker Matchmaker"... Tevye wants to see his daughters married in the old Jewish way, but in the Russia of 1905 revolution is in the air. See review, page 11

Sheffield Crucible (0114 249 6000), to 20 Jan, £10-£20

Journey to the River Sea

The Unicorn children's theatre has been in its permanent, spanking new Thameside quarters just a year, offering low-on-tinsel, high-on-content drama. The promise of a new family catapults orphaned Maia from the grey streets of Edwardian London to the teeming greenery of the Brazilian rainforest. But when she arrives, her hopes of adventure are shattered by her unwelcoming relatives.Luckily, Maia has made friends of her own, a homesick actor and a mysterious boy who lives alone in the jungle. Together they escape, and embark on an expedition up the Amazon.

Unicorn Theatre, London SE1 (020 7645 0560), to 28 Jan, £9.50-£14.50

Mr A's Amazing Christmas Show

Alan Ayckbourn's interactive play for children was first produced in Scarborough in 1988 and later at the National Theatre. When Susie's mother buys her daughter a dog neither of them imagines how such a tiny puppy could grow so enormous. Nor, when the sinister Mr Accousticus moves into the big house opposite, do they foresee the adventures that await them. Soon Susie and her dog, Neville, are running for their lives, and the audience is called on to help. At every performance their journey is different - it's you who decides the outcome.

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (01723 370541), to 6 Jan, £5-£10.50

Dick Whittington & his Cat

For its first foray into pantomime, the Barbican asked the least obvious person to write it: savage social dramatist Mark Ravenhill, who has taken the commission very seriously indeed. This is certainly no parody of pantomime, but the real old-fashioned deal, packed with corny puns, stock routines, gloopy songs and cross-dressing. And the title chosen is no co-incidence: the events of Dick Whittington happened in the area now covered by the Barbican.

Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (0845 120 7500), to 20 Jan, £12-£35

Watership Down

Just as director Melly Still's children's hit Coram Boy returns to the National Theatre, her new staging of Richard Adams's bunny saga arrives in West London. "Scruffily beautiful" and "often inspired" according to IoS theatre critic Kate Bassett, it presents a harshly divided world in which Hazel, Bigwig and co bounce on trampolines and giant-carrot pogo sticks, while the rabbit-guards that patrol the warren are Nazi storm-troopers. For children age seven and up.

Lyric, Hammersmith, London W8 (08700 500 511), to 13 Jan, £10-£27

Dance

Wind in The Willows

Following its sell-out success over two Christmases past, Will Tuckett's inspired retelling of the adventures of Mole, Ratty, Badger and the hapless Toad returns. With narration from Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, music from Martin Ward and designs by The Quay Brothers and Nicky Gillibrand, which between them cook up a speeding car, a galloping caravan, a racing train and a riverbank, this is beautifully realised theatre.

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000), Fri to 13 Jan, £6-£21

Cinderella

The Brothers Grimm meet TV's Absolutely Fabulous in this boisterous production made last year for Scottish Ballet. Set to the Prokofiev score, with choreography by Ashley Page and designs by Antony McDonald, this is not a Cinderella for the squeamish (the ugly sisters chop off their toes). But there's also comedy and romance, and the most memorable arrival at the ball you are likely to see.

Glasgow Theatre Royal (08700 606647), to 30 Dec; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000), 4-13 Jan; Wales Millennium Centre (08700 40 2000), 24-27 Jan; Grand Opera House, Belfast (02890 241919), 6-10 Feb; His Majesty's, Aberdeen (01224 641122), 14-17 Feb, £9-£35

The Nutcracker

If you want to introduce children to the ballet, choose this fun, graphic English National Ballet version over the Royal Ballet's statelier one. The Act I family party takes place amid barely concealed marital strife, and Clara's escape from it all is Act II. Designer Gerald Scarfe's pièce de resistance is a Dance of the Snowflakes issuing from a giant fridge, and the dancing parcels are witty.

London Coliseum, WC2 (0870 145 0200), to 24 Dec, £10-£55

Swan Lake

Can there be anyone left to persuade of the brilliance of Matthew Bourne's male-swan rewrite? Now in its 12th year, and with more international awards than a cupboard will hold, this gripping, funny, profoundly moving show takes in London on yet another global tour. These are the only UK dates for the next year. See interview.

Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737), Wed to 21 Jan, £13-£48

Concerts

Circulus / Chrome Hoof

The full ghastly history of mankind, no less, is the theme of this alternative Christmas music gig. Psychedelic neo-medieval folk-rockers Circulus fill the first half. Expect pointy shoes, vintage synthesizers, crumhorns and rauchpfeifer - a very loud, medieval, alto instrument. By contrast 12-piece band Chrome Hoof describe themselves as a "satanic, progressive-doom disco collective". Intrigued? This specially conceived theatrical production plays one band off against the other: celestial love 'n' peace crushed by the dark disco mutants.

Purcell Room, London SE1 (0870 3800 400) Saturday only, £10

Claire Martin and Ian Shaw's Cool Christmas Stocking

The two leading British jazz vocalists (both are past recipients of BBC Jazz Awards) offer a selection of swinging stocking-fillers in their unique duetting style. Classics of both jazz and pop idioms get the treatment, with songs originating from Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn through to Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello. Check out similar one-off concerts in the excellent Cool Yule season at the South Bank.

Purcell Room, London SE1 (0870 3800 400), 21 Dec only, £18

SIMON CASSON

Producer of 'Duckie: The Class Club'

"Duckie grew out of 11 years of gay cabaret nights in a dodgy pub in south London, though our last show went to Sydney Opera House. Posh or rough is fine by us, as long as it's extreme. I hate shows where people sit in the dark in rows. Duckie events are interactive, with the punters at the centre of the experience. 'The Class Club' is in the tradition of those cheesy themed parties people threw in the Seventies, only this is an art house version. The club is set up, for the first half, as three restaurants - upper, middle and lower class - divided by curtains. Suffice to say that the waiters are the performers and a narrative ensues, but I'm not letting on what it is. Of course, Britain doesn't have such a rigid class system any more. The real clash here is between performance and real life."

THOMAS WHITEHEAD

Swan in 'Swan Lake' at Sadler's Wells

"Given that this is only the second job I've had, and the door is still open for me to go back to the Royal Ballet, I can't believe my luck. I approached the 'Swan Lake' team for the part - it's been an ambition of mine for years and friends had said, 'Go on, it would really suit you.' The movement vocabulary is new to me, so that was a challenge. And at the Royal I was used to lifting girls, of course, but now I'm lifting guys which is gruelling. It takes me about an hour to get ready beforehand. You've got to paint yourself white, get the feathers on, then get warmed and psyched up, then calm down. This isn't about being in the air, as ballet is. It's about being grounded and steady, and if you're too hyped up when you come on stage, your balances get the shakes. I've had to learn a whole new mindset."

TIM FIRTH

Author, 'The Flint Street Nativity', Liverpool Playhouse

"Remember when you were six or seven and first encountered traditional carols? The words are impossible, full of baffling things about abhorring a virgin's womb, ghastly Victorian stuff just asking to be mis-learnt. No wonder kids' minds wander when they open their mouths to sing. There are 10 carols during the course of this show, and each becomes a window on the child's inner life, revealing what he or she is really thinking about. Some of the humour derives from my own experience as a parent: one of my children believed for years that Bethlehem was full of people who'd gone there to pay for taxis... The piece is basically a comedy, with adult actors playing children, but it grew out of my fascination with the brutality of a child's world. Nothing you meet in the wider world hasn't been encountered at junior school - the insecurities, the manipulations, the back-stabbings. I've told the cast to think of it more as 'The Godfather' than 'It's a Wonderful Life'."

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