Babes in the Wood Players' Theatre
The cosy auditorium slopes down to a small yet serviceable stage where velvet curtains droop discreetly behind a flowing proscenium. Here, stage left, like a cross between President Poincare and Sir Joseph Porter, presides Master-of-Ceremonies, Dominic Le Foe, introducing Victorian music-hall while confusing hapless Americans with the joke that within these walls, the world is trembling on the verge of 1898.

Tonight at the Players' Theatre, however, things are different. Le Foe presents songs and carols in time-honoured Players' manner. But tonight, they are also performing their annual panto, Babes In The Wood.

Compared with Spice World this is hardly glittering showbiz. Yet like the company itself, tucked away in The Arches, Villiers Street, this production is among the capital's best kept theatrical secrets. As the home of music- hall, pantomime and melodrama, the Players' has a lineage that extends to the song-and-supper clubs beloved of Thackeray and Gilbert. Since 1936, and in various locations, the troupe has commanded talents such as Peter Ustinov and Rex Whistler, and supporters including the Churchills and Bonham-Carters to continue the tradition. Saved from hard times by enlightened sponsorship from Marks & Spencer and Young's Brewery, the club preserves its legacy for future generations. One joy for lovers of English fare is the bar and restaurant, where in line with the Players' flavour of entertainment, roast beef is served - off the bone, naturally.

There's a stir, and in the form of pianist Andrew Faulkner the full orchestra arrives. Mr Faulkner is an artist who projects to the stalls. He makes effects. His playing is worthy of the Wigmore Hall. Then they're off the into this Scottish version of the story, with be-kilted Michelle Grant and Jennifer Morton as the eponymous infants ("very dread-full children indeed"), Clifton Todd and Martyn Harrison as the villains, Jo Napthine as the Queen of the Fairies ("the original feathered friend") and Robert Meadwell as Sir Rowland Macassar, whose name sparks off a Christmas cracker- full of excruciating puns.

By a whisker, however, the star is Eleanor McCready, the evil Lady Beth, bearing on her very broad shoulders a heap of negative feminine stereotypes. Her dual role is as Lady Macbeth, for Shakespeare's play is a running subtext, part of the scenery that includes buckets of Scottish tunes, with excerpts from Mendelssohn, Donizetti, Verdi and many, many others.

As in the finest examples of 18th century ballad and pasticcio opera, not much in this panto is actually original. The secret lies in the presentation. So there's more in common with Spice World after all? Quite so; save that, on the subject of babes, these Babes In The Wood are a rather more durable proposition.