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Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Mary Poppins Returns - Review




Who Made It?


Mary Poppins Returns is a sequel to Disney’s 1964 classic Mary Poppins, which was loosely based on the Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers. The film is directed by Rob Marshall (Into the Woods), and the screenplay is written by David Magee (Finding Neverland) with Marshall and John DeLuca assisting in writing the story.

What’s It About?


Mary Poppins Returns takes place in 1930’s London during “the days of The Great Slump”. Since his life was changed by the magical nanny Mary Poppins over two decades before, Michael Banks (played by Ben Wishaw) has become an adult,  living with his sister Jane (played by Emily Mortimer), his housekeeper Ellen (played by Julie Walters) and three children  - the mature older siblings Anabel and John  (played by Pixie Davies and Nathaneal Saleh) and more adventurous younger child Georgie (played by Joel Dawson) . Since the death of his wife, Michael has been struggling to pay his bills, and he now has just five days to save his family home from the villainous banker William Wetherall Wilkins (played by Collin Firth). Whilst walking through the park, discovers the old Banks family kite in the air and follows it to discover Mary Poppins (played by Emily Blunt) who returns to Banks house to look after the children. Aided by the lamplighter Jack (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda) Mary takes Anabel, John  and Georgie  on a variety of fantastical adventures - including visits to an underwater world, a music hall populated entirely by animals, and an upside-down shop - whilst the Banks family try to find the documents which could allow them to clear their debts.

Review

(This Review Contains Mild Spoilers)


Released in 1964, Mary Poppins became one of the most iconic films in the Disney canon, winning several Oscars (and receiving a coveted Best Picture nomination).. Watching it today, it is not hard to see why it became so successful. The film is undoubtedly flawed - the characters are flat by modern standards, and many of the scenes go on for a very long time without advancing the relatively thin and simplistic story. However, these issues are minor in comparison to the timeless messages, elaborate special effects and inescapably catchy songs. Most importantly, the movie has a unique and magical atmosphere which can enchant audiences of all ages. In the 55 years since its initial release, Mary Poppins has inspired a long-running stage adaptation and even a film about how Walt Disney brought it to life. Given its enduring popularity, it is not surprising that Disney have opted to make a sequel, but the first film sets an impossibly high bar for Mary Poppins Returns. Mary Poppins Returns is not able to clear this, but it still manages to be a very good followup to the much-loved original.

It is no surprise to learn that the story of Mary Poppins Returns sticks closely to the template of the original. The Banks family are dealing with a crisis, causing Mary to fly in and look after the children. She takes them on a variety of adventures, including one which takes place in an animated world, and one involving an eccentric relative with a strange condition.  After the children cause chaos in the bank, they run away and get treated to a musical number by Mary’s sidekick and his workmates. Eventually, the story ends with the Banks family enjoying a high-flying celebration outdoors. Many of the memorable elements from the first movie also return to add to the nostalgic appeal. The talking parrot on Mary’s umbrella gets a larger role, and Admiral Boom is still firing cannons to mark the hour, although his timing is not as reliable as it used to be. In addition, we get a wide variety of smaller Easter eggs, and spotting them provides Mary Poppins fans with an additional pleasure. For all the callbacks to the original, there are enough changes to help Mary Poppins Returns feel like a continuation of the Banks Family story, rather than a full-on  retread. One of the highlights is the depiction of London. Whilst the original Mary Poppins was filmed entirely on soundstages, with matte paintings used in the background, Mary Poppins Returns provides us with a detailed world where Mary can work her signature magic. The exaggeration of the first film is mostly discarded in favour of making a relatively authentic depiction of London as it was in the 1930s. There are some anachronistic touches (Miranda’s patter during one song is pretty close to rapping, and we see several lamplighters perform modern BMX-style stunts on their bicycles during one sequence) but this generally is a successful depiction of a London which is grey and impoverished, but with magic and adventure nearer than anyone expects...

The one advantage this film has over the original is the characterisation. In the first film, Mr Banks was probably the only fully developed and realistic character. Originally Michael and Jane Banks were typical cute children looking for a respite from their rigid lifestyle, but they have developed into interesting characters here. Michael has been pursuing his dreams of being an artist, but his recent loss has forced him to grow up rapidly and find a job in order to raise money for his children. Michael is struggling to preserve his sense of childlike wonder in an inhospitable world, and this plays a key role in his growing frustration with the chaos which Mary always brings. His arc could have easily been a repeat of Mr Banks’ evolution in the first movie, but it genuinely feels unique. Meanwhile, Jane is following in her mother’s footsteps, running a charity to look after the poor and unemployed. Whereas the first film played Winifred Bank’s suffragette status for laughs, this one generally takes Jane’s activism seriously, and is all the better for it. The children avoid being annoying, with an intriguing contrast between Anabel and John (who had to grow up too fast) and Georgie, who is still unaffected by the pressures of adult life. As in the first film, Mary and her sidekick are relatively two-dimensional characters, primarily existing to generate change in the Banks family. However, they are engaging and charismatic enough to inspire and engage us, and they do an excellent job of promoting the incredible worlds which they are able to create. The story is stronger than the first film, but it is still a secondary element at best. The race to save 17 Cherry Tree Lane adds a welcome degree of urgency and allows the film to be a bit more focused. There is still plenty of padding, but the common threads linking the songs and fantasy sequences are stronger this time around. However, for every improvement, there is an unnecessary or pointless addition. The presence of an outright villain is understandable given the more dramatic storyline, but Wilkins is not interesting or threatening enough to please those who believe that the issues in the Banks family provide enough conflict for the film. Meanwhile, Jane’s activism is discarded in order to establish a romantic relationship with Jack. The two make a lovely couple, but the decision to put them together feels forced.

The two things which made the original Mary Poppins such an iconic film are the fantasy sequences and the songs. The fantasy sequences here are pretty impressive, taking advantage of the leaps in technology which have occurred over the last five decades.  Mary makes bathtime fun by taking the children on an underwater adventure, where they meet whales and giant ships. She then turns the paintings on a ceramic vase into an animated world populated by animals. The hand-drawn animation which made the “Jolly Holiday” sequence so iconic is emulated in impressive fashion here, with CGI being used to enhance painted backgrounds and sketchy hand-drawn animals reminiscent of the 60’s style of animation. However, as in the first film, the simplest effects are the best. Little moments of magic, such as Mary pulling a giant parasol out of a sink and disappearing into a bath, are even more impressive than the grand special effects sequences which follow. There are two big action scenes, which are a risk in a generally charming and old-fashioned film. In the Doulton Bowl sequence, Ananabel and Jon must rescue Georgie from a villainous wolf with a remarkable resemblance to Wilkins. The chase scene which follows is fairly weak, with Wolf Wilkins’s creepy facial expressions being the most notable thing about it. Conversely, the climax, which features Mary and Jack’s lamplighter friends invading Big Ben in order to literally turn back time, is genuinely creative and engaging. The new set pieces and effects lack the hand-crafted charm of the ones in the original, but they are still entertaining enough to feel genuinely timeless

The songs are written by composer-songwriter duo Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, best-known for creating the soundtrack to Hairspray.In addition to following in the footsteps of the first film, they have to compete with a growing number of recent musical hits, including Frozen, The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born. However, whilst these used contemporary musical styles to appeal to modern audiences, the soundtrack to Mary Poppins Returns is defiantly old-fashioned, consisting of ballads and jaunty uptempo numbers which would not be out of place in the musicals of the 1930s. The nine new songs written for Mary Poppins Returns all serve as direct substitutes for the numbers from the original, staying close to the Mary Poppins formula. To give a couple of examples, Jack’s signature song, “Underneath the Lovely London Sky” takes the place of “ Chim Chim In Nee”, (The theme tune of Dick Van Dyke’s lovable chimney sweep Bert) , whilst “Royal Doulton Music Hall” and “A Cover Is Not the Book” provide the same music-hall inspired entertainment as “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. Elements of the original score make their way into the movie, and concluding song  “Nowhere to go but up” also contains lines alluding to a couple of the old favourites. As the original Mary Poppins contained one of the greatest Disney soundtracks of all time, the new songs are fighting a losing battle and generally fail to match the iconic status of the original tunes. For instance, whilst “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” contains intricate lyrics with plenty of rhyming slang, it lacks the call-and-response charm and energy which made “Step in Time” such an enjoyable song. However, they have plenty of merit on their own terms. “Can You Imagine That?” is probably the catchiest number, whilst “A Cover Is Not the Book” adds a surprising amount of sauciness to this incredibly wholesome world (perfect for a music hall pastiche). Overall, the strongest addition is easily “The Place Where Lost Things Go”. This simple but lovely ballad allows the Banks children to come to terms with the loss of their mother, and a later reprise is one of the emotional highlights of the film. None of the songs from Mary Poppins Returns will be a major chart hit like “Let It Go”, “This Is Me” or “Shallow”, but that was never their intention, and they provide decent entertainment for the duration of the movie.

The cast for Mary Poppins Returns is incredibly impressive, but their performances are a mixed bag. Ben Wishaw, rapidly becoming one of Britian’s national treasures, probably gives the best performance in the film, capturing Michael Banks’ struggle to adjust to his difficult circumstances and keeping him sympathetic even as his seemingly hopeless situation begins to make him angry and frustrated. Emily Blunt starts out strict and aloof, but it does not take long for her to bring out Mary’s playfulness, and she captures the unique appeal of this iconic character. Davies, Saleh and Dawson do a decent job bringing the Banks children to life, whilst Emily Mortimer is lively if underused as Jane Banks . Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda brings a lot of charm and likeability to his first major film role as Jack. His London accent is not very accurate, but he never forces it too much, so it is a lot better than Dick Van Dyke’s infamous “Cockney” accent from the original.  For those who enjoy terrible accents, you don’t have to look too far. In the role of Mary’s relative Topsy, (whose repair shop has a habit of turning upside down), Meryl Streep provides a ridiculously thick and wobbly “Eastern European” accent which plays to all the stereotypes associated with the region. She is not the only big-name star who wastes their talents in this movie. Colin Firth provides a villainous version of his signature posh persona, but Wilkins is an incredibly flat villain, a stereotypical greedy banker with little screentime and few unique traits. Julie Walters is barely given anything to do, which is a tremendous disappointment considering her talent and experience. However, there are still some memorable supporting characters. Veteran actor David Warner is having a lot of fun as Admiral Boom, whilst Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is likeable and amusing as Wilkins’s kind-hearted henchman Frye. Dick Van Dyke turns up at the end in a memorable cameo as the elderly bank owner Dawes (son of the decrepit Dawes Sr. from the first film, and uncle of Wilkins), with his scene providing a touching reminder that the childhood magic promoted by Mary Poppins can have some incredible long term effects. Meanwhile, Angela Lansbury plays a balloon lady whose magical balloons are at the heart of the closing scenes. Lansbury is as lively as ever, but it is impossible to dispute that her scenes would have a greater impact if Julie Andrews played the role as was originally intended.

Verdict


Like the iconic original, Mary Poppins Returns is hard to judge by conventional standards. Technically, it is probably superior to the first Mary Poppins - the story is tighter and more engaging and the characters are generally better developed. However, the sequel lacks a lot of the spontaneity and novelty which made the original so special, and there are too many flaws and deficiencies in the narrative to compensate for this. That said, Mary Poppins Returns is still a good film, with excellent messages, appealing characters and impressive special effects. Therefore, audiences should check it out, regardless of their familiarity with the original. Mary Poppins Returns will not become a genre-defining classic like the first Mary Poppins film, but it is one of the better films from Disney’s often inconsistent live-action division, and people will be able to enjoy it for decades to come.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

2019 Fairy Tales - A Preview


As 2019 starts, it is time to look forward to the events and stories which will define the coming year. Fairytale fans will have a lot of interesting things to look forward to across 2019, and this article will highlight 20 of these. The list includes books, films, TV series, video games and even streaming services. Some of the things listed here are big Disney blockbusters, whilst others are smaller, more unusual projects. However, all of these have the potential to inspire and entertain an incredibly large audience over the next 52 weeks and beyond...

(Note: In order to simplify things, this article focuses primarily on British and American releases. Despite this, there will be numerous great fairytale projects created and released all over the world this year. I look forward to discussing them in future articles.)


2019 Fairy Tales - A Preview



Kingdom Hearts III (Released Jan 25th)



Although Kingdom Hearts III is one of the first major videogame releases of 2019, it is almost certainly one of the most significant of the year. First started in 2002, the Kingdom Hearts series is an unusual collaboration between Disney and the Japanese video game icons Square Enix (best known for creating the Final Fantasy games). Unsurprisingly, it has become one of the biggest videogame franchises in the world. The story of Kingdom Hearts concerns a hero called Sora, who teams up with Donald Duck and Goofy on an epic quest which takes them into the worlds of numerous classic Disney films. Although this is listed as the second direct sequel in the Kingdom Hearts canon, it is actually the twelfth game in the series, due to the numerous spin offs, midquels and prequels which have been released over the years. Although the mythology has become incredibly convoluted, the core premise remains as appealing as ever - we have all wanted to visit the worlds of various Disney films and interact with our favourite characters. As the first direct sequel since 2006, Kingdom Hearts III is taking advantage of the developments which have occurred at Disney Animation over the last twelve years. The merger between Disney and Pixar has allowed characters from Toy Story and Monsters Inc to join the Kingdom Hearts universe, and the success of Tangled and Frozen means that our protagonists will get to visit Arrendelle and Corona and interact with the likes of Rapunzel and Queen Elsa. The graphics are more sophisticated, and there are more special powers to keep us at our controllers, but the appeal of Kingdom Hearts will always lie in the epic and unlimited adventures it offers for Disney fans. 



The Kid Who Would be King (Released Jan 25th in USA, February 15th in the UK)



Eight years after his well-received directorial debut Attack the Block (which introduced audiences to Jon Boyega and Jodie Whittaker) comedy screenwriter Joe Cornish will provide another story about youths in a dull London suburb getting caught up in an incredible fantasy adventure. Whilst Attack the Block was about an alien invasion, The Kid Who Would Be King applies Cornish's formula to Arthurian legend. Andy Serkis's son Louis Ashbourne Serkis plays a kid who discovers King Arthur's sword in a building site and becomes leader of the fight against the dark wizard Morgana. Cinematic takes on King Arthur have rarely been critical or commercial hits, but The Kid Who Would Be King seems like an entertaining update of the classic English hero. The familiar elements of King Arthur's story are present, but there are plenty of modern day touches (For instance, Merlin disguises himself as a gangly teenager) and a lot of humour based on the idea of ordinary schoolchildren following in the footsteps of classic fantasy heroes. Originally intended to be released last summer, The Kid Who Would be King has been moved to the end of January (rarely a good sign) but hopefully it will be worth the wait. 


Children of Virtue and Vengeance (Released March 5th)



Of all the YA books released in 2018, none reflected the zeitgeist of the year as well as Tomi Adeyemi's debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone, which combined African folklore, classic YA tropes, and a strong message about fighting racism. Set in the fictitious African kingdom of Oshira, it told the story of the story of a girl called Zelie who has to team up with princess Amari to fight a tyrannical King and restore the magical powers which were stolen from her tribe. The hype surrounding the novel was immense (rights for a movie adaptation were brought before it was even published) but it resoundingly lived up to expectations, receiving widespread critical acclaim and consistently appearing on the New York Times Bestsellers list throughout 2018 . In the light of this success, it is no surprise to learn that a sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, is being released in March. Picking up where the first story left off, it sees Zelie and Amari trying to avert a civil war when their enemies take advantage of the magic restored to Oshira. Children of Virtue and Vengeance is going to be the second in a trilogy, and it looks like it will provide further for development for Zelie, Amari and their world whilst laying the groundwork for an epic finale. 


American Gods - Season 2 (Starts March 10th)



It is a great time to be a Neil Gaiman fan, with radio adaptations of his work becoming a Christmas staple in the UK, and a TV adaptation of his fantasy epic Good Omens arriving in 2019. However, fans of mythology will be most interested in the second season of American Gods, the cult favourite cable series based on Gaiman's 2001 novel of the same name. The first season aired on the cable channel Starz in 2017,  fascinating critics and audiences with its depiction of the battle between classic mythological gods and the "New Gods" who embody the key aspects of modern technology and media. The two year wait for a second season has not been an easy one. Show runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green were controversially fired after the first season ended, and their replacement Jesse Alexander had his powers taken away, leaving the series without a proper show runner. Throughout this chaos, there were numerous rewrites and reshoots, and stars Gillian Anderson and Krstin Chentworth both dropped out. However, the second season is ready to air, promising to retain the psychedelic tone of the first season whilst moving closer to Gaiman's source material. Epic TV shows such as this are often plagued by "second season syndrome", as the struggle to follow up an impressive first season leads to an inferior second one. Hopefully, American Gods will avoid this and cement its reputation as one of the most interesting and unique American series of recent years. 


Sherwood (Released March 19th)



Like King Arthur, Robin Hood is another iconic English hero who has lost credibility due to numerous mediocre-to-bad adaptations of his story, including the critically panned Robin Hood, which was one of the biggest flops of 2018. For her new novel Sherwood, Meagan Spooner aims to freshen things up by shifting the focus to Robin's love interest Maid Marian. When Robin Hood dies whilst fighting in the Holy Land, Maid Marian is left alone and desperate in a miserable and impoverished Nottingham. With Robin's enemies, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne, being as wicked as ever, Marian takes matters into her own hands. She finds her husband's cloak and weapons, and replaces him as the saviour of the poor and downtrodden. With her growing line up of sci-fi and fantasy books (including the Beauty and the Beast- inspired Hunted), Meagan Spooner is becoming a rising star in the Young Adult genre, and Sherwood seems like it will be another hit with the teenage (and predominantly female) audiences who have made YA into such a profitable part of the literary industry. 



Hadestown arrives on Broadway (Previews begin 22nd March, Opening Night 17th April)






Beginning life as a concept album created by the singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell, Hadestown has become a cult favourite amongst musical fans in recent years. It had a long journey to Broadway (including acclaimed productions at New York Theatre Workshop, Toronto's Citadel Theatre and London's National Theatre) which is finally culminating in its arrival at the prestigious Walter Kerr Theatre, which recently hosted the record-breaking Springsteen on Broadway. Hadestown updates the Greek myth of Orpheus for the modern era, with Eurydice forced to go to Hadestown in search of work, and Orpheus embarking on a doomed quest to get her back. The soundtrack is based on Depression-era folk and jazz music and the story deals with numerous social and environmental issues. We don't yet have confirmation that the National Theatre cast (with Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada as Orpheus and Eurydice, and Broadway icons Andre de Shields and Patrick Page as Hermes and Hades respectively) are going to return to reprise their roles on the Great White Way, but it is reasonable to assume that they will. However, regardless of whether they return or not, Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin will provide a powerful and dramatic take on an iconic ancient tragedy. Chavkin was behind the acclaimed but short-lived Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, but hopefully this project will enjoy a far longer run. Whilst the 2017-18 season was a pretty weak one for musicals, the 2018-19 season will be a lot more exciting and diverse, and Hadestown will be one of the primary favourites to succeed at the Tony Awards in June.


Dumbo (Released March 29th)



Tim Burton's 2010 remake/sequel of Alice in Wonderland was certainly not his best work, but it proved a phenomenal success, making over $1 billion worldwide and ensuring that remakes would become the cornerstone of Disney's live-action division. Almost a decade later, Burton is adaptation nother early Disney classic, Dumbo. Whilst Disney's live-action remakes are often criticised for being too close to the source material, Burton will make plenty of changes for Dumbo. After all, The original film was just 65 minutes long, and featured a lot of padding and dated material that is not suitable for 2018. This means that the Burton has to radically expand the story in order to turn it into a 2 hour blockbuster. The greatest change is shifting the focus from Dumbo to the human employees of the circus, with Colin Farrell playing a father who comes across the titular big-eared elephant and tries to help him learn how to fly. The supporting cast includes the likes of Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton, but the CGI elephant will remain the primary scene-stealer. Burton's reputation has been waning in recent years, but Dumbo should provide the blend of whimsy and darkness which has made him so successful.


The Princess and the Fangirl (Released April 2nd)



It is hard to do something truly unique with a story as familiar as Cinderella, but Ashley Poston managed this with her 2017 novel Geekerella. This updated the story popularised by Charles Perrault  to fit the world of modern fan culture, with the Grand Ball being a Sci-Fi convention and the Prince being a handsome young actor who is about to play the lead in the Sci-Fi blockbuster Starfield. This spring, Poston is returning to the Geekerella universe with The Princess and The Fangirl, centred on a side character from the original novel. The Princess and the Fangirl takes the ambitious actress Jessica Stone and makes her the protagonist in an adventure inspired by Mark Twain's classic The Prince and The Pauper. Jessica plays Princess Amara in the Starfield Franchaise, but wants to quit the role in order to find classier projects. However, rumours that Princess Amara will be killed off lead fangirl Imogen Lovelace (who looks remarkably like Jessica) to start an online campaign to save the character. When the script to the new Starfield movie is leaked, Imogen and Jessica have to switch places in order to find the person responsible. In addition to providing a feminist twist on the source material, The Princess and the Fangirl pays tribute to the legions of fans obsessed with iconic Sci-Fi brands such as Star Wars and Star Trek. The stars of these franchises have become the modern-day equivalent to royalty for many, and the studios where they are filmed have the same awe-inspiring power as royal castles. Like Geekerella, The Princess and the Fangirl will provide an entertaining exploration of fan culture, demonstrating what happens when a Fangirl fulfils her their fairytale dream and gets to meet the people whose output has played such a major role in their lives.


Missing Link (Released April 12th)



The Stop-motion studio Laika are one of the most exciting and innovative animation companies in America, and it is always great to see them release a new movie. This year, they are releasing Missing Link, a new take on the Bigfoot legend. The story concerns a giant half-ape, half-human creature (voiced by Zach Galifanakis) who teams up with two explorers (voiced by Hugh Jackman and Zoe Saldana) in order to travel to the mythical city of Shangri-La and find the rest of his species. Compared to the likes of Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, Missing Link seems like a rather conventional 'road trip' comedy, but the characters and settings should be engaging enough to make the movie stand out. It goes without saying that the stop-motion animation will be the highlight of Missing Link, as Laika will provide a Jules Verne-style Victorian world even more ambitious than anything they have created before - Far Eastern mountains, atmospheric American forests and giant sailing ships are all being portrayed in a wonderfully detailed and colourful fashion. Hours of effort have gone into even the smallest details, as the studio have created new technology to allow characters to breathe authentically. In a year where most of the major animated movies (including The Lego Movie 2, Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2) will be sequels, Missing Link is the sort of creative stand-alone film that will really excite fans of the genre. 


Charming (Released in the UK in Spring 2019)



From the philandering princes of Into the Woods to the outright villainous Prince Hans from Frozen, handsome princes are rarely treated with anything other than contempt in modern revisionist fairytale films. However, Charming represents an interesting exception to the rule. It tells the story of a Prince who is affected with a curse which makes him irresistible to every woman he meets. This naturally comes with some increasingly unpleasant side effects, and Prince Phillipe has to team up with a jewel thief to undo the spell before all love in the world is lost forever. Charming has been awaiting a major release for a very long time (Wilmer Valderrama and Demi Lovato, who voice the protagonists, were a couple when they recorded their lines but have since split up), but it was finally released in various European territories last year, and fledgling studio Blue Finch Films have acquired the rights to release it in the UK.  Producer John H Williams helped bring Shrek to the big screen, but his 2007 animation Happily N'Ever After was critically panned, and there is a real chance that Charming could be a second consecutive fairytale-themed failure. That said, the premise is certainly interesting and any film with the legendary John Cleese as a fairy godmother will definitely be fun. At the very least, this will be a decent time waster for children during the holiday. 


Cinderella Liberator (Released May 7th)



As we become more conscious about the messages that we send to young girls, fairytale retellings are under pressure to set a positive example for them. One new book which will inspire numerous girls in 2019 is Cinderella Liberator, written by the prominent feminist commentator Rebecca Solnit. Needless to say, this Cinderella is not going to wait for a prince to return her missing shoe, but will instead be a tougher and more active character fighting for herself and those around her. However, Cinderella Liberator will still stay true to the core idea of a mistreated girl escaping her miserable and monotonous world. The book also honours its roots through its use of silhouettes created by the legendary fairy tale illustrator Arthur Rackham, and the contrast between classic illustrations and modern messages is certainly intriguing. It will be fascinating to see an academic like Solnit transfer to the world of children's literature, but it allows her to promote her ideas and beliefs in a unique and entertaining manner. 


Aladdin (Released May 24th)



Disney's live-action remakes have tended to be adapted from more serious and old fashioned films, but their take on Aladdin represents a different approach. Disney's 1992 hit, based on the classic Arabian Nights tale about a street urchin who discovers a powerful Genie and tries to win the heart of a Princess, took a more action-packed and comedic approach than the likes of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, and the live-action remake will need to emulate this in order to stand out. The project has attracted considerable scepticism, but it looks like the most interesting of Disney's three live-action remakes this year. Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie will apply his brash, action-packed style to this family-friendly adventure musical, but needs to provide a more sensitive depiction of the fictitious Arabic kingdom of Agrabah, responding to criticism which the original film has received for its heavily stereotypical depiction of the widely misrepresented Middle East. The star of the show will undoubtedly be Will Smith, playing the legendary Genie and returning to the smooth, energetic and lively persona he has discarded in recent years. The rest of the cast consists of various rising stars with a Middle Eastern or Indian background, with Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine. The classic songs from the original will return, but there will also be a couple of new ones from The Greatest Showman composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The additional songs created for Disney's live-action remakes tend not to upstage the originals, but if anyone can break this convention, it's the duo behind "This is Me" and "You Will Be Found". Aladdin will either be the best or the worst of Disney's live-action projects, and we are all waiting to see whether it exceeds expectations or lives down to the worst fears if Disney fans...


Wicked Fox (Released June 25th)



Due to its focus on fantasy and melodrama, the YA genre often draws on mythology and fairytales. A lot of YA stories are based on familiar Western fairytales, but Katharine Cho's Wicked Fox does something diferent, using Korean Folklore as its inspiration. Wicked Fox tells the story of Gu Mihoung, a seemingly ordinary women who lives in modern day Seoul with her mother. However, she is actually a Gumiho - a mythological nine-tailed fox who has to eat the souls of men in order to survive. Mihoung decides to use her deadly powers for good by becoming a vigilante and feeding on the criminals who have evaded justice. However, things get complicated when she befriends a young man and falls in love with him. Cho has been writing since the age of nine, but this is the first book of hers to actually be published. With an intriguing premise that combines several familiar elements in a creative and exciting way, Wicked Fox marks Cho out as a talent to watch. 





With the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, streaming is becoming an increasingly prominent part of film and TV culture, so it is no surprise to find out that Disney will enter this lucrative market with their new service Disney +. First announced in August 2017, Disney + starts operating in the second half of 2019. Disney films used to be a Netflix staple, but they are all being moved to . Disney +, and all Disney movies released from now on will be released on this channel after their cinematic runs conclude. Once it is complete, Disney + will provide a major platform for a wide range of Disney films and TV series, including older classics, more recent blockbusters, and productions from Disney-owned brands such as Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic. However, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, Disney + will also provide plenty of original films and TV shows created especially for the platform (There are rumours that these projects will include a live-action remake of The Sword In The Stone and a new version of Don Quixote.)  Netflix productions like Orange Is The New Black, Stranger Things and Roma have set an incredibly high bar for streaming services, but Disney definitely have the talent and resources to provide some big hits of their own. Aimed primarily at families and cheaper than most of its rivals, Disney + will definitely be another major money-spinner for Disney. 


Moulin Rogue arrives on Broadway (Previews Begin June 28th, Opening Night July 25th)



Baz Luhrman's 2001 film Moulin Rogue was a creative and unusual musical about a star-crossed romance in a fantasy version of 1890's Paris. For the first musical of the 2019-20 season, the Hirschfield Theatre will be hosting a new stage adaptation of this Oscar-nominated hit. The story and setting are mostly the same, but the Jukebox soundtrack of the original film (including "Your Song" and "Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend") is being updated to include hits for the last 17 years such as "Rolling in the Deep" and "Royals". Les Miserables star Aaron Tveit plays the protagonist Christian (portrayed by Ewan McGregor in the film), whilst Karen Olivo will play his ill-fated love interest Satine. Director Alex Timbers has gained a reputation for being one of the most innovative directors on Broadway. The eye popping detailed and immersive sets were the highlight of the production at the Boston tryouts last year, and they will probably be upgraded for Broadway to be even more incredible. On paper, Lurhman's output should be perfect for Broadway, but his fast-paced and chaotic filming style is not easy to translate to the more static medium of the stage. Although an adaptation of Strictly Ballroom did not do very well on the West End this year, this version of Moulin Rogue looks set to prove that Luhrman's decadent approach can be successfully transferred to the stage. 


The Lion King (Released July 19th)



The last and biggest of Disney's live-action remakes is The Lion King. In the 25 years since the original was released, it has become one of Disney's signature films, and remaking it for 2019 is a pretty difficult challenge. Jon Favereau, whose 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book is probably the most acclaimed of Disney's live-action remakes, is transferring its motion capture approach to the Savannahs of Africa, sparking plenty of debate over whether a film without human characters can be considered live-action. The inhabitants of Pride Rock will be brought to life by "photorealistic" visuals and an all-star cast, with Donald Glover voicing Simba, and Chiwetel Ejofor voicing the diabolical Scar. However, the two biggest attractions will be BeyoncĂ©, voicing Simba's love interest Nala, and James Earl Jones, who voiced Mufasa in the original film and is returning to reprise his role as the King of the Jungle. It will be incredibly difficult to improve on the near-perfect original, but this version of The Lion King should still be an impressive and entertaining summer spectacle on its own terms. 


The D23 2019 (August 23rd - 25th)



Since it was started in 2009, the Biennial D23 convention (established by Disney's Official fan club D23) allows Disney fans to head to California for three days of exciting activities themed around the output of the iconic studio. The attractions include cosplay competitions, concerts, film screenings and the opportunity to meet the people behind their favourite films. However, the undisputed highlight of any D23 convention is the opportunity to learn more about the Disney films which will arrive in cinemas over the next few years. With all three live-action remakes and Toy Story 4 already released by August, the focus of D23 will probably be Frozen 2. "Let It Go" was first performed at the 2013 D23 - will D23 audiences get to hear an equally impressive song? We can also expect news on forthcoming live-action and animated projects, including release dates, casting information and even exclusive footage. 


Mary Poppins arrives on the West End (Previews and Opening Night in Autumn 2019)




The recent sequel Mary Poppins Returns has probably not been as much of a hit as many anticipated, but it has undoubtedly succeeded in its primary role of revitalising interest in Disney's 1964 classic Mary Poppins. In order to capitalise on this, Disney Theatrical's 2004 adaptation of Mary Poppins will return to the West End in Autumn 2019. It will replace Aladdin at the Prince Edward theatre, opening shortly after that musical closes at the end of August. This is the first time that Disney have provided a major revival of one of their own musicals, and it will be interesting to see whether the new version can emulate or surpass the success of the original production, which ran for four years at the same theatre. The stage version of Mary Poppins, a collaboration between Disney Theatrical and British mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh, combines elements from the Disney film and the P.L Travers novels which inspired it. Zizi Strallen will play Mary Poppins (having previously played the iconic nanny in a well-received touring adaptation of the production in 2015 and 2016), whilst Charlie Stemp will be her chimney sweep sidekick Bert. The numerous classic songs from the original film, such as "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Feed the Birds" and "Step in Time" will return, as will popular songs from the original West End production such as "Practically Perfect" and "Anything Can Happen". The production also contains some incredible special effects (from bottomless bags to actors walking on the ceiling), but the most important aspect will undoubtedly be the timeless story of how Mary Poppins brings joy to the lives of the Banks family. This new West End production will keep a lot of the elements which made the original such a success whilst providing enough new material to justify the decision to give it such a high-profile revival. 

P.S - fans of Mary Poppins may also be interested in The Life I Lead, a new play which will be performed at North London's Park Theatre in March. It tells the story of David Tomlinson (the prolific British actor best known for playing Mr. Banks in the original Mary Poppins) and will reveal how Tomlinson's relationship with his father inspired his portrayal of the Banks family patriarch. TV comedian Miles Jupp will play Tomlinson in a production which will blend both drama and comedy to highlight his unique role in cinema history. The Life I Lead is not the first work to examine the role unreliable fathers played in the making of Mary Poppins, but seems like an intriguing counterpoint to the 'Disneyfied' approach of Saving Mr Banks. It is only going to be on for 12 nights (March 18th - March 30th), so you have to book quickly in order to see it...


Frozen 2 (Released 22nd November)



Out of all the fairytale related projects mentioned in this article, there are none which will attract as much scrutiny and hype as Frozen 2. It is almost six years since the original Frozen became an unexpected phenomenon, and it remains incredibly popular with audiences of all ages. Jennifer Lee, director and writer of the original film, is returning for Frozen 2, and this film represents her greatest test since she was appointed Disney's new Chief Creative Officer in June. Co-director Chris Buck and songwriting duo Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez will also be back, and Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel will be reprising their roles as royal sisters Anna and Elsa. The original Frozen is both one of the most loved and most hated films in the Disney canon, and the team will have to put in extra effort to keep the fans happy whilst winning over detractors. Information on Frozen 2 is pretty thin on the ground at the moment, but there will be new characters (two of whom are likely to be voiced by Sterling K. Brown and Evan Rachel Wood) and around eight new songs. Lee has confirmed that the film will take Anna and Elsa far from their kingdom of Arendelle, and Kristen Anderson-Lopez has implied that some of the mythology added for the recent Broadway adaptation could make its way into the sequel. Following up a film as iconic as Frozen is an incredibly hard task, but of Frozen 2 builds on Anna and Elsa's relationship whilst providing them with a compelling new story and more catchy songs, it could equal or even surpass its predecessor. 


The 2019 Pantomimes (Opening November/December)



Given that the Christmas 2018 pantomimes are still on, it seems a bit too early to get excited about the ones which will open at the end of 2019. However, many theatres have already announced their 2019 pantomimes, as these are a highlight of the calendar for many major suburban and regional theatres. As usual, most of the major pantomime venues are adapting the small handful of classic fairy tales which define the traditional pantomime repertoire. The Lyric Hammersmith will be adapting Cinderella, whilst the Theatre Royal Stratford will be providing a version of Dick Whittington. We can expect the cast and crew to liven up these familiar tales with slapstick, topical humour and even a few smutty innuendos. 

In addition, some theatres have already announced the stars of their annual pantomimes. Craig Revel Horwood will play the Wicked Queen in Manchester's version of Snow White, whilst Shane Ritchie will play Robin Hood in Bristol, having played him in Milton Keynes over Christmas. We can expect more popular British celebrities, ranging from panto mainstays to genre newcomers, to be confirmed as headliners soon. There is still a lot more to learn about the pantomimes which will define Christmas 2019, but most of the information about them will be revealed by the end of April, so you won't have to wait too long to find out which pantomimes are worth booking a early ticket for...

Monday, 17 December 2018

Christmas 2018 - Fairy Tale Plays


The cold dark winter months are an excellent time to enjoy an imaginative and colourful fairy tale, and some of the best fairy tale-based entertainment is provided by theatres over the Christmas break. This article showcases 20 of the best fairy tale-themed productions being put on by theatres in London and the rest of the UK over the Christmas period. The article solely looks at traditional plays and musicals, so ballets and pantomimes are not included.

(Note: The majority of these productions can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages, but a couple of them are for adults only.)

London

Christmas represents an excellent time for visiting London, and numerous theatres provide entertainment for people throughout the city. West End mainstays such as Wicked, The Lion King and Aladdin are still on and attracting numerous theatregoers, but this article will focus on productions that will only be on for a very limited time. Some of these are revivals of productions which have been hits in previous years, whilst others are brand new...

A Christmas Carol (Arts Theatre, Ends 12th January)
Every Christmas, there are numerous stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol, as numerous theatres compete to provide the most impressive version of the story. The redemption of the infamous miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has become as synonymous with Christmas as trees and carols, and there are several interesting retellings this year, with one of the most interesting being performed at the Arts Theatre. The veteran British actor Simon Callow (Who has played Dickens in several TV and stage productions) narrates the story and plays all the characters in it, from Scrooge to Tiny Tim. This one-man approach is reminiscent of the readings which Charles Dickens gave at the height of his literary career and adds an old-fashioned and mysterious atmosphere which highlights the magic of the classic story. This intimate retelling of A Christmas Carol has been performed at the Arts Theatre three times before and has even inspired a television adaptation. Whilst the theatrical productions that dominate at this time of year tend to be grand spectacles, this adaptation relies almost entirely on Callow’s masterful storytelling, proving that sometimes the simplest plays can be the best.

A Christmas Carol (The Old Vic, Ends 19th January)
In contrast to the minimalism of Callow’s production, the Old Vic version of A Christmas Carol provides a grand and immersive retelling of the classic story. When it premiered last year, Matthew Warchus’ version (written by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child playwright Jack Thorne) attracted the attention of the critics and general public with its spectacular and immersive staging. Combining Victorian music and impressive floating lanterns with a more in-depth exploration of Scrooge’s backstory, Warchus and Thorne managed to provide grand entertainment for audiences of all ages whilst emphasising the themes and messages which have made A Christmas Carol such an iconic and important story. Considering the acclaim it received, it is no surprise to see this production return for a second consecutive Christmas. Some changes have been made for this revival (Stephen Tompkinson will replace Rhys Ifans in the role of Scrooge) but it seems like it will recapture the magic of the 2017 production. The Old Vic has enjoyed an excellent year, with several acclaimed productions (including Fanny & Alexander, A Monster Calls and Wise Children) and reviving A Christmas Carol brings an eventful 2018 full circle for the prestigious London theatre.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter (The Bridge Theatre, Ends 6th January)
After the Oscar-winning success of his film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Martin McDonagh has returned to the world of theatre for A Very Very Very Dark Matter, which provides a scathing satire on 19th century colonialism and our reverence towards classic writers who are overwhelmingly white, male and European. The play is based on the premise that Hans Christian Andersen owed his success and fame to a diminutive African slave he kept imprisoned in his attic. Unsurprisingly, McDonagh goes all out to alienate Andersen fans, with the author interpreted as a grotesque, foul-mouthed racist, and Charles Dickens is also portrayed in an incredibly unflattering light. Veteran actors Jim Broadbent and Phil Daniels play Andersen and Dickens, but the star of the show is probably Joanetta Eula’Mae Ackles, the unknown actress who plays Andersen’s prisoner.  Although it has not received the acclaim associated with most of McDonagh’s work, this play has gained its fair share of champions, and worth seeing if you are interested in a strange and shocking take on the life of literary icons. If you are sick of Christmas magic and cheer, then A Very Very Very Dark Matter is worth a watch, representing an impressively vicious counterpart to the upbeat, family friendly fare which predominates at this time of year.

The Box of Delights (Wiltons Music Hall, Ends 5th January)
Last year, the East London venue Wiltons Music Hall premiered an adaptation of Jon Masefield’s classic adventure fantasy novel The Box of Delights. The 2017 production, which was written by Children’s author Piers Torday, was generally well-received, and it is not a surprise to hear that it is being brought back for Christmas 2018. Although it was a sequel to Masefield’s earlier story The Midnight Folk, The Box of Delights has become iconic on its own terms, due to its storyline about a boy who receives an incredible magic box and must take on an evil wizard plotting against Christmas itself. Last year’s production starred TV icon Matthew Kelly and West End veteran Josefina Gabrielle in dual roles, as they played both heroic and villainous characters. Although neither Kelly nor Gabrielle are returning this time, there are some talented actors in the cast, with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child star Theo Ancient playing protagonist Kay Harker. The Box of Delights has fallen into obscurity in recent years, but its blend of uniquely British charm and epic fantasy has inspired many of the major fantasy novels which followed it, including The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Dark is Rising. This Christmas represents an ideal time to rediscover this classic story.

Don Quixote (Garrick Theatre, Ends 2nd February)
In an age where films, books and shows are widely expected to subvert and deconstruct genre norms, it is not surprising that there has been renewed interest in the classic Cervantes story Don Quixote. The tale of a delusional nobleman obsessed with stories of medieval chivalry and heroism, Don Quixote is enjoying a renaissance at the moment (Terry Gilliam’s adaptation is finally being released after a turbulent 20-year journey to the big screen and there is speculation that Disney are planning to create their own version), demonstrating that a story which is over 400 years old and almost 1,000 pages long can continue to capture our imaginations in the 21st century. This production, directed by James Fenton, premiered at Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Spring 2016, and is now being performed in the West End for the first time. Shameless star David Threfall plays Quixote, whilst comedian Rufus Hound is his loyal sidekick Sancho Panza. The production has a wacky and comedic first half and a more melancholy second half, with innovative and unique puppetry and a wide array of songs to keep audiences entertained throughout. Regardless of how familiar you are with the original story, this adaptation of Don Quixote represents colourful and lively escapism which is perfect for this time of year.

Hadestown (National Theatre, Ends 26th January)
Initially beginning life as a concept album written by Anais Mitchell, Hadestown has become a cult favourite, with popular and acclaimed productions taking place in Canada and New York. This creative musical puts a more modern spin on the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice, with Euridice being forced to go the dystopian city of Hadetown in her search for work, and Orpheus following her into this underworld in a bid to get her back. The soundtrack is based on musical styles from the era of the Great Depression, with folk and jazz predominating, whilst the storyline tackles a range of increasingly important social, political and environmental issues. The production also boats an impressive cast – our two protagonists being played by Reeve Carney and Eve Noblezada, whilst the Broadway veterans Andre de Shields and Patrick Page bring sinister gravitas to the roles of the Greek Gods Hermes and Hades. Director Rachel Chavkin previously made the acclaimed but short-lived Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and this musical provides a similar blend of traditional story and innovative ideas. Hadestown will premiere on Broadway in April, and it seems like it will be a major contender at the Tony Awards over the summer. The National Theatre run represents an excellent opportunity to see Hadestown before it goes from cult favourite to acclaimed award winner.

Peter Pan (Park Theatre, Ends 5th January)
Based near Finsbury Park in North London, the Park Theatre has become in increasingly prominent and popular venue in recent years, with numerous high-profile productions and celebrity stars. This Christmas, they will be providing a new production of Peter Pan. The selling point of this production is its use of J.M Barrie’s original script, which was created for the first ever stage production of Peter Pan in 1904. After 115 years of retellings and adaptations in many different mediums, the original text still retains plenty of its magic, but modern music and staging are being used in this version to update Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland for 2018. Peter will be played by Nickolla King-N’Da, with Rosemary Boyle in the role of Wendy. Alexander Valhos, recently heard voicing the sinister Wolf in a recent Radio 4 adaptation of The Company of Wolves, will be playing Captain Hook. A close adaptation of the source material with enough new elements to stand out, Peter Pan is a must-watch for fans of the classic story.


Phillip Pullman's Grimm Tales (Unicorn Theatre, Ends 6th January)
Unlike most London theatres, the Unicorn Theatre provides productions which are specifically aimed at children and families. However, this does not necessarily mean that their productions will be juvenile and sanitised, and Phillip Pullman's Grimm Tales (or Grimm Tales for short) is proof that stories can be dark and scary whilst remaining entirely suitable for younger audiences. The Brothers Grimm retellings found here are based on Phillip Pullman’s 2012 translations of their work and retain the mysterious yet simplistic approach which made them so appealing for the iconic Northern Lights author. Grimm Tales features five classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales interweaved into a single narrative about a group of children hearing these stories during a sleepover. The familiar stories of Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are combined with overlooked gems such as The Goose Girl at the Spring and the twisted The Juniper Tree. Grimm Tales blends both the magical and mundane and highlights the timeless messages which Brothers Grimm fairytales can provide, making it an excellent way of introducing children to the magic and mystery of the fairy tale genre.

Rumpelstiltskin (Southbank Centre, Ends 6th January)
This Australian update of the Brothers Grimm classic Rumpelstiltskin was a hit when it premiered in its home country in 2016, and it is making its European debut at the Southbank Centre. The Australian entertainer Paul Capsis will play the titular imp, who has been reimagined as a flamboyant and sinister fashion designer. As in the source material, Rumpelstiltskin signs a deal with a young woman seeking his help but tries to get revenge on her when she discards him. The updates to the traditional story allow for some imaginative and eccentric staging, with plenty of modern songs and some satire about our desire to seek expensive clothes. With its unconventional updates of its source material, this adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin is one of the more unusual productions on this list.

Striking 12 (Union Theatre, Ends 23rd December)
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Matchgirl (which depicts an impoverished girl sacrificing her miserable life for visions of a better one) is famous for being one of the bleakest Christmas stories of all time, but like all of Andersen’s great fairytales, it possesses a blend of magic and tragedy that makes it a perfect fit for the season. For Striking 12, which is making its UK Premiere at Southwark’s Union Theatre, the story is used as the basis for a creative modern-day musical. This combines Andersen’s story of with a new narrative about a solitary man who reads The Little Matchgirl on New Years Eve and is inspired to change his perspective on life as he forms a bond with the ill-fated protagonist. The soundtrack, created by the composer duo GrooveLilly, blends a variety of contemporary musical styles, with West End stars Declan Bennett and Bronte Barbe leading the cast. Striking 12 premiered off-Broadway in 2004, and the fact that it has just made it to London is a testament to the enduring appeal of the story and its source material.

Rest of the UK

Although the West End is one of the major theatregoing hubs in the world, it would be incredibly insulting to overlook the plays and productions being performed in the rest of the UK. Theatres all over the country are providing high quality entertainment for audiences across the Christmas break, and their productions look every bit as creative and entertaining as the ones in London…

Alice in Wonderland (Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Ends 29th December)
Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre is increasingly becoming one off the most acclaimed theatres in Wales, with its charming programme of family friendly Christmas plays representing a highlight of the calendar. This year, they are providing a version of Alice in Wonderland directed by Rachel O’ Riordan.  This retains the surrealism of the source material, with plenty of wacky slapstick and a constantly shifting set that leads to various creative special effects. There are also several songs, and the production has a distinctive Welsh identity that contrasts with the more traditional approach embodied by Disney. However, there is also a more serious undercurrent, as Alice is portrayed here as a teenager who struggles to make sense of the world, with the eccentric residents of Wonderland representing teachers, fellow pupils and even her family. This allows the production to combine its silly approach with genuinely important messages about being yourself and dealing with an often-irrational world. In 2019, Rachel O’ Riordan will become the Artistic Director of West London’s iconic Lyric Hammersmith theatre, and this production is an excellent conclusion to her time in Wales.

Beauty and the Beast (Theatre by the Lake, The Lake District, Ends 12th January)
Although the Lake District is famous for its spectacular mountains, parks and lakes, there is plenty of entertainment for those who would prefer to stay indoors during the long and cold winter nights. Based in the picturesque village of Keswick, the Theatre By the Lake provides lively entertainment for locals and tourists alike, and its Christmas productions are as colourful and magical as the local scenery. This year, the Theatre by the Lake are providing an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast created by the prolific director and playwright Laurence Boswell. His version of the iconic 18th century fairytale was first performed at the Young Vic in 1996 and has been occasionally revived since. Boswell has renovated the script for this new production, but still sticks closely to Jean Marie Le Prince Beaumont’s iconic source material, as Beauty is forced to live with a cursed Beast after her father steals one of his roses for her. This traditional retelling still contains a variety of modern touches, as the production combines old-fashioned sets and robot servants. However, for all the spectacle and songs, the focus of the story will remain firmly on Beauty and her coming of age.

Duckie (Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 20th December – 31st December)
The cabaret artist and drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat has become a prominent performer in Britain, receiving acclaim and attention for shows like Icon and Black. This Christmas, he will be performing his production Duckie at Cardiff’s famous Millennium Centre, updating Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic tale The Ugly Duckling. Most of Le Gateau Chocolat’s work is for adults, but Duckie is aimed primarily at kids. However, its messages about embracing the things which make you unusual and unique, are perfect for audiences of all ages. In this production, Le Gateau Chocolat tells the story of a Duck in a circus coming to terms with his inability to quack, as he meets various animals in his search for a suitable mentor. Le Gateau Chocolat provides numerous outlandish costumes and sings a wide variety of songs in his deep and rich singing voice. He also adds plenty of interactive elements and physical comedy to his show, but never loses sight of the main themes and issues which he is exploring.  Duckie demonstrates that Le Gateau Chocolat can provide family friendly entertainment without sacrificing the quirky and uninhibited approach which made him popular in the first place.

Hansel and Gretel (Rose Theatre Kingston, Kingston, Ends  6th January)
With its mysterious forest setting, dark themes and brave protagonists, Hansel and Gretel is one of the defining Brothers Grimm fairy tales, but it can be a challenge to expand it into a two-hour adventure story. For their Christmas production, the Rose Theatre (based in the suburban town of Kingston-upon-Thames) are putting on a creative new adaptation of the tale, which provides a variety of major twists on a familiar narrative. Instead of being abandoned by a heartless mother, Hansel and Gretel are sent away by a corrupt mayor, and Gretel’s desire to learn more about her missing parents forms a key part of the narrative. In addition, a variety of iconic fairy tale characters (including Snow White, Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio) make cameos. However, for all the changes and expansions, the core of the story remains the same, with Gretel having to outwit the sinister child-eating witch who lives in a house made of sweets and cakes. There are a handful of adults in the show, but the real stars are the child actors from the Rose Youth Theatre, who are divided into two teams who perform on alternate nights. Blending music, magic and adventure, this retelling of Hansel and Gretel provides lively entertainment for all ages whilst maintaining the scary undertones that have made the story so iconic.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (Theatre Royal Bath, Bath, Ends 13th January)
In 1905, the Hungarian refugee Baroness Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel, about a masked hero who rescues nobles from the violence and bloodshed of the French Revolution. This story of intrigue and adventure inspired many of the superheroes and daredevils who would define 20th century fiction, but the reactionary undertones have aged badly. However, this rendition of The Scarlet Pimpernel succeeds in making the tale fit for the modern age, by providing a wackier retelling which emphasizes the action and adventure. A cast of just five actors play dozens of characters, with the Pimpernel leading a team of 20 men in a quest to save an aristocrat and his numerous pet poodles. There are plenty of bad French accents and gaudy costumes in this production, with more than a few swordfights to add some excitement. The threat posed by Madame Guillotine is a persistent fear for the protagonists, but it is played lightly enough to entertain rather than disturb the children in the audience. Overall, the Theatre Royal Bath’s take on The Scarlet Pimpernel is the sort of lively adventure that will introduce a new generation to the story which paved the way for so many iconic heroes.

Sleeping Beauty (Chichester Festival Theatre, Chichester, Ends 30th December)
Chichester is a major theatrical hub, with numerous prominent actors and actresses performing in high-profile productions there. This means that the regional youth theatre has an incredibly significant platform to gain acclaim and attention from theatre tourists who visit the region in the winter months. This Christmas, Chichester Youth Theatre will be taking advantage of this with a production of Sleeping Beauty. Like the Theatre by the Lake adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, this is an update of a Young Vic Christmas play. However, this revival of Rufus Norris’s 2002 production takes a darker and more unconventional approach. It returns the story of Sleeping Beauty back to Charles Perrault’s source material, taking the tale beyond Beauty waking up from her enchanted sleep. Once Beauty ends up in the Prince’s Kingdom, she has to deal with a sinister troll Mother-in-law plotting against her, whilst Goody the fairy tries to set things right for the young woman who she once cursed. Embracing the macabre aspects of the original story whilst adding enough comedy and adventure to make it more palatable for children, this retelling of Sleeping Beauty makes this old-fashioned fairy tale into a creepy yet magical evening of entertainment.


Treasure Island (Leicester Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, Ends 6th January)
Eleven years after it last hosted a play, Leicester’s Haymarket theatre has been reopened, and its first production will be an all-new adaptation of Treasure Island written by comedienne Sandi Toksvig. With her roles as a host of QI and The Great British Bake Off, Toksvig has become a national treasure, so the prospect of her adapting the classic adventure novel will doubtlessly attract many theatregoers to the Leicester Haymarket over the Christmas period. The story of Jim Hawkins and his grand adventure on the high seas, is a pretty popular choice for Christmas productions, and Toksvig (whose sister Jennifer is a co-writer on this production) will certainly be able to put her own unique spin on it. Kat Engall will play Hawkins, whilst Jules Brown will play the mysterious Long John Silver The production will also feature a cameo from another British icon – Footballer and sports pundit Gary Lineker (who played for Leicester City during his illustrious career) will appear in a video recording as Captain Flint. Combining action, comedy, music and more than a little star power, this looks like an impressive piece of escapism perfect for a family night out.


Wendy and Peter Pan (Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Ends 5th January)

For their Christmas production this year, Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Lyceum Theatre are staging Wendy and Peter Pan, Ella Hickson’s 2013 adaptation of the classic play and novel from iconic Scottish playwright J.M Barrie. As the title indicates, the focus of this version is shifted from Peter Pan to the female protagonist Wendy, with her coming-of-age providing the story with most of its dramatic weight. Wendy (played by Isobel McArthur) struggles to be a force of sanity in the chaos of Neverland, as she must work alongside the ruder and more aggressive Tinkerbell and Tiger Lilly, and her adventures allow her to understand more about the responsibilities and challenges of womanhood. Peter himself is played by Ziggy Heath, whilst Gyuri Sarossy portrays an ageing but still threatening Captain Hook. For all the changes to the characters, this production still provides the impressive staging, costumes and flying effects we all expect from the Peter Pan story. Wendy and Peter Pan has been frequently revived over the last five years, and its feminist approach will make it a major hit with Scottish theatregoers.

Wicked (Palace Theatre, Manchester, Ends 5th January)
This October marked 15 years since Wicked officially opened on Broadway, and this creative reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz remains as popular as ever. For those unable to see it in the West End, it has spent the past five years touring various British cities, and the tour concludes in Manchester, with a month-long run at the prestigious Palace Theatre. The unusual friendship between wicked witch Elphaba and Glinda the Good witch continues to inspire and move audiences of all ages, and songs such as “Popular”, “Defying Gravity” and “For Good” are some of the most iconic Musical Theatre anthems of the 21st century. Regardless of whether or not you are a seasoned fan of Wicked, this Manchester run represents an excellent opportunity to enjoy the musical which inspired the likes of Frozen, Once Upon A Time and Maleficent.

The Wizard of Oz (Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, Ends 13th January)
For those who want a more conventional take on The Wizard of Oz, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre are providing a lively musical adaptation of the iconic L. Frank Baum novel. Dorothy Gale’s journey across the Yellow Brick Road with the Tin Man, The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion remains one of the most influential children’s stories of all time, and this production brings it to life for the theatregoers of modern-day Birmingham, updating the rural American values for a more energetic and diverse culture. The classic songs from the 1939 movie adaptation, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” remain intact, but have been given new orchestrations reminiscent of classic soul music, whilst the choreography combines 1930s style “Jitterbug” dancing with modern hip-hop moves. Chisara Agor plays a stronger and more assertive Dorothy, and there is plenty of gender flipping, with the Lion played by a woman and the Wicked Witch of the West being played (like so many Over-the-Top villains from family-friendly musicals) by a male actor in drag. Overall, this adaptation updates The Wizard of Oz for 2018 whilst celebrating the iconic world and characters which have allowed this tale to endure for so long.