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.)
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.