At last – 'tis the season. Time to throw on your gladrags, pack some popcorn (or mini chocolate santas, perhaps) and hit the town – whether to catch a festive staging of a classic Christmas tale, take in an enchanting candlelit concert or to yell “He’s behind you!” at a pantomime dame.
This year, there’s a hearty spread of new events from which to choose, spanning pop and panto, nativities and Nutcrackers. Or perhaps it’s the moment to cuddle up with an old favourite, such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, probably the greatest ever festive movie, now back in cinemas in an extended edition.
Our critics have rounded up the (brandy) crème de la crème of Christmas shows across the UK. But don’t just take their word for it, get browsing and booking – the proof is in the pudding...
Thursford Christmas Spectacular
Probably Europe’s biggest Christmas show, this three-hour spectacular features umpteen musical golden oldies, delivered by a cast of 130, accompanied by one of the largest remaining Wurlitzers.
Thursford Collection, Fakenham, Norfolk (thursford.com), until Dec 23
London’s dedicated children’s theatre presents a new version (by Eve Leigh) of Carlo Collodi’s tale of the wooden boy with the growing nose, played by Peyvand Sadeghian.
Unicorn Theatre, London SE1 (unicorntheatre.com), until Dec 31
Bill Alexander’s meltingly lovely dance-based adaptation of the Raymond Briggs story about a young boy who journeys to see Father Christmas with his snowman pal is still an ideal introduction to theatre.
The Peacock, London WC2 (sadlerswells.com), until Dec 31
The True Adventures of Marian and Robin Hood!
Marian joins forces with her childhood nemesis Robin to thwart her hapless husband-to-be, the Sheriff of Nottingham – with a dash of magic and acrobatics.
Barn, Cirencester (barntheatre.org.uk), until Dec 31
Thrown to the wolves by Arts Council England, the brilliant but cash-strapped Watermill rolls on, giving the time-honoured fairy tale an intriguing Italianate twist.
Watermill Theatre, Newbury (watermill.org.uk), until Jan 1
A Christmas Carol
Political engagement meets theatrical enchantment as David Edgar brings Dickens’s poverty-benighted era into the frame. Ade Edmondson is a compellingly curmudgeonly Scrooge. Rachel Kavanaugh directs.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (rsc.org.uk), until Jan 1
Debbie Isitt and Nicky Ager’s uproariously sweet musical version of Isitt’s filmed homage to school nativity plays returns to the Rep, where it launched in 2017, having now been seen by more than a million people.
Birmingham Rep (birmingham-rep.co.uk), until Jan 7
A fresh musical retelling of Hoffmann’s tale – best known through the Tchaikovksy ballet – written by Bristol Old Vic’s departing artistic director Tom Morris.
Bristol Old Vic (bristololdvic.org.uk), until Jan 7
The Wizard of Oz
“We’re not in Kansas anymore…” The MGM masterpiece hit the West End in 2011 in a version that supplemented the Harold Arlen and E Y Harburg numbers with new tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Now, that show gets a Curve makeover, with director Nikolai Foster, on a roll, in charge.
Curve, Leicester (curveonline.co.uk), until Jan 8
The National Theatre’s slightly jinxed musical (book by Tanya Ronder, lyrics and direction by NT chief Rufus Norris) has another stab at a proper run, after the omicron coronavirus variant stopped play last year; the twist in the tale makes Sleeping Beauty’s curse the slip-up of a well-meaning fairy.
National’s Olivier Theatre, London SE1 (nationaltheatre.org.uk), until Jan 14
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Billed as a “reinvention” of the musical seen in the West End and on Broadway, James Brining’s new production stars Gareth Snook as Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl’s golden ticket of a tale about a poor boy who enters choco-nirvana.
Leeds Playhouse (leedsplayhouse.org.uk), until Jan 28
Sean Holmes’s delectable staging of the 1976 film – heartily approved by the late Alan Parker – delivers bona fide belters, splurge-guns galore and the sublime spectacle of ebullient youth masquerading as world-weary NYC gangster-dom.
Alexandra Palace, London N22 (bugsymalonethemusical.com), today-Jan 15
Featuring the songs of Irving Berlin, the 1954 film in which there’s no snow at the inn and show-business saves the day got spun into a stage musical 18 years ago. Now it’s on tour, with Lorna Luft – Judy Garland’s daughter – playing the struggling inn’s housekeeper.
Sunderland Empire, today, then Liverpool Empire, Tues-Dec 31 (whitechristmasthemusical.co.uk)
Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol
Parton has written the score for this Americanised Christmas Carol – set in the Smoky Mountains of Depression-era Tennessee, where Scrooge (Robert Bathurst) treats mining folk like dirt.
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (dollyschristmascarol.com), Thurs-Jan 8
Claus: The Musical
Published two years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L Frank Baum’s 1902 book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus has been adapted into a stage musical (by Andy Collyer and Simon Warne). Harry Winchester plays Claus, raised by a wood nymph after being abandoned as a baby.
Lowry Centre, Salford (thelowry.com), Dec 14-Jan 8
The Wind in the Willows
An escapist Edwardian dream of a show, courtesy of Alan Bennett, adapting Kenneth Grahame’s tale of autophile Toad and his dauntless helpers, Ratty, Mole and Badger. Dale Rooks directs the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre.
Chichester Festival Theatre (cft.org.uk), Dec 17-31
Following a three-year restoration, one of Western art’s most moving Nativities – painted c 1470-75 by Piero della Francesca for his home town of Sansepolcro, in Tuscany – returns to public display.
National Gallery, London WC2 (nationalgallery.org.uk)
Silent Night at Dennis Severs’ House
Struggling to get into the Christmas spirit? Take a candlelit tour, suffused with perfume and wood smoke, of the Grade II-listed 18th-century Spitalfields house transformed into a historical “still-life drama” by the American Dennis Severs.
Dennis Severs’ House, London E1 (dennissevershouse.co.uk), until Jan 8
One of pop’s greatest voices, still roaring at 77. It doesn’t have to be Christmas for Sir Rod to look like he’s just popped out of a stocking and is ready to party.
Ovo Hydro, Glasgow (rodstewart.com), today and touring
Rick Wakeman’s Grumpy Christmas Stocking Tour
Highlights from the prog rock keyboard wizard’s work with David Bowie, Yes, and his solo albums are given a festive makeover, accompanied by humorous tales from the famously amusing if unreliable anecdotalist.
Bath Forum (rwcc.com), today and touring
Rick Astley’s Swinging Christmas
The 1980s pop star who is never gonna give up Rickrolls on with three shows backed by a big band.
Liverpool Philharmonic, Dec 13; Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (rickastley.co.uk), Dec 15-16
Candlelight: Celeste Live
In a magical one-off performance, sensuous Brit Award-winner Celeste performs by candlelight, backed by the London Contemporary Orchestra conducted by Roger Ames.
Central Hall Westminster, London SW1 (feverup.com), Dec 17
It’s a Wonderful Life
Frank Capra’s 1946 film has been adapted for opera by librettist Gene Scheer and composer Jake Heggie, with a touch of Broadway musical magic. A hit in America, it comes to the UK with the soprano Danielle de Niese as the angel Clara (replacing the film’s Clarence).
London Coliseum, WC2 (eno.org), until Dec 10
The Magic Flute
There’s no better introduction to opera than Mozart’s wonderful score and the touching (if sometimes confusing) story of good outwitting evil. David McVicar’s superb production, beautifully designed and lit, is triumphantly conducted by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Maxim Emelyanychev. The soprano Anna Prohaska leads the cast.
Royal Opera House, London WC2 (roh.org.uk), until Dec 30
A one-off performance of the opera that Benjamin Britten wrote for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, about the stormy reign and personal conflicts of her predecessor Elizabeth I. Martyn Brabbins conducts, with the alto Christine Rice in the title role.
London Coliseum, WC2 (eno.org), Thurs
A Christmas Carol-Ish… by Mr Swallow
After dabbling in TV (Ted Lasso, Intelligence), Nick Mohammed is back on stage doing what he does best: playing Mr Swallow, a hapless former lifestyle coach whose latest vanity project is a tribute to Dickens. What could possibly go wrong?
Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre.com), Dec 7-23
Sublime musical comedy (with gorgeous videos to boot) from funky multi-instrumentalist Archie Henderson, whose alter ego Jazz Emu is something halfway between Jarvis Cocker and the fifth member of Abba.
Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre.com), Dec 9-20
Liz Kingsman: One-Woman Show
The breakout live comedy hit of 2021, this merciless send-up of Fleabag-ish confessional theatre returns to the West End for what’s likely to be a final hurrah.
Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2 (onewomanshow.co.uk), Dec 14-Jan 21
Off Menu: The Christmas Dinner Party
James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s wildly popular comedy podcast – in which guests describe their dream meals – comes to the stage with “some very special festive surprises”. May include sprouts.
Southbank Centre, London SE1 (southbankcentre.co.uk), Dec 20
The Muppet Christmas Carol: extended edition
With respect even to Alastair Sim, this Michael Caine-starrer must by now count as the most popularly beloved Scrooge film. A long-lost song has been put back in for this 30th anniversary re-release.
In cinemas now
The Cbeebies Christmas Panto
The children’s channel’s perky troupe throw themselves into Dick Whittington and His Cat this year, with all the usual low-threat silliness and catchy songs. Cinema screenings feature bonus sketches.
In cinemas now; TV broadcast TBC
Matilda the Musical
The hit stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s last major children’s novel transitions flawlessly to cinemas, with Emma Thompson’s petrifying Miss Trunchbull looming over the perfectly picked ensemble cast.
In cinemas now
The Bishop’s Wife
A 75th anniversary re-release for this sweetly disarming seasonal romance, in which Cary Grant’s debonair angel falls for the spouse of the clergyman he’s been sent to assist. With David Niven and Loretta Young.
In selected cinemas from Fri
Avatar: The Way of Water
The wait is finally over for the sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time – with the principal cast returning and bonus Kate Winslet.
In cinemas from Dec 16
Clive Rowe, the Olivier-winning doyen of dames, helps the home of London’s street-savviest pantomime conclude its 120th anniversary celebrations by taking the lead and directing, too, with dependable funnyman Kat B as Billy Goose.
Hackney Empire, London E8 (hackneyempire.co.uk), until Dec 31
This Cotswolds theatre has the ideal ambience for a family-friendly panto, and dependable creativity to boot. Now in its 50th year.
The Theatre, Chipping Norton (chippingnortontheatre.com), until Jan 15
At 83, Ian McKellen is also daming it up as Mother Goose, with John Bishop playing her husband; the duo run an animal sanctuary in an abandoned department store. Jonathan Harvey scripts a show that will give the Palladium panto a run for its money, and then goes on tour until Easter.
Theatre Royal Brighton (mothergooseshow.co.uk), today-Dec 11 and touring
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
A cavalcade of familiar faces and well-known names join south London’s biggest panto offering, with Ruthie Henshall, Matthew Kelly, Lee Mead and Dick & Dom all signing up for the show political correctness couldn’t ban.
New Wimbledon Theatre (atgtickets.com), today-Dec 31
Jack and the Beanstalk
As lavish as they get, and as innuendo-laden as they come (annual fixture Julian Clary returns), this year’s panto extravaganza has recruited Dawn French as Dame Trot, with Alexandra Burke, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot and Paul Zerdin adding both celebrity heft and comic zest.
London Palladium, London W1 (palladiumpantomime.com), Dec 10-Jan 15
Silly, fun and mercifully brief: seven pantos rattled through in 70 minutes, courtesy of co-creators (and former CBBC presenters) Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner.
Apollo Theatre, London W1 (nimaxtheatres.com), Dec 17-Jan 8
After a £1 million makeover, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s festive staple is back. Created by Peter Wright in 1990, it’s the most gasp-inducing Nutcracker you could hope to see.
Birmingham Hippodrome (brb.org.uk), until Dec 10
The Snow Queen
Based on the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale (which also inspired a certain Frozen), Scottish Ballet’s pacy, entertaining, family-friendly 2019 confection makes a welcome return.
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (scottishballet.co.uk), until Dec 10 and touring
Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty
A vampiric Lilac Fairy! A cherubic, unheimlich puppet as the young Aurora! Tchaikovsky’s marvel of a score! What’s not to like about Bourne’s 2012 popular reworking?
Sadler’s Wells, London EC1 (sadlerswells.com), until Jan 15
Veteran choreographer-producer Peter Wright’s beautiful 1984 production for the Royal Ballet (very different from his BRB one), takes its annual bow at Covent Garden.
Royal Opera House, London WC2 (roh.org.uk), in rep Tues-Jan 14
CLASSICAL & JAZZ
Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience
Handel’s much-loved oratorio has been reimagined as an immersive theatrical spectacular involving dance, video, set design – and top-rank musicians.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London WC2 (immersivehandelsmessiah.com), Tues
Down for the Count Orchestra
The band that revives the golden sound of 1950s Capitol Studios recordings has beefed up its string sound for its Swing into Christmas show, featuring festive tunes and classic swing numbers.
The Forum, Bath (downforthecount.co.uk), Weds and touring
St John’s Smith Square Christmas Festival
The best festive music festival in the country has something for all tastes, from Handel’s Messiah to medieval seasonal music from the group Siglo de Oro to big-band Christmas sounds.
St John’s Smith Square, London SW1 (sjss.org.uk), Thurs-Dec 23
Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas
Britain’s best big-band leader brings the country’s top players together for a night of Christmas music with a jazz twist, with guest vocalists Clare Teal, Vanessa Haynes and Lance Ellington.
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (royalalberthall.com), Fri
A Dickensian Christmas
Nobody summons up the nostalgic appeal of Christmas as well as Charles Dickens, and in this family Christmas show his A Christmas Carol is threaded through some best-loved Victorian carols.
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (raymondgubbay.co.uk), Dec 10 and touring
A Christmas cracker with singers Kerry Ellis and Ricardo Afonso, a specially created orchestra choir and Jingle Bell dancers for a feast of festive music, song and dance.
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (raymondgubbay.co.uk), Dec 19 and touring