‘Tis the season to don your gladrags, pack some popcorn (or mini chocolate santas, perhaps) and skip off to a show – whether that be a theatrical adaptation of a favourite novel, an enchanting candlelit concert or a chuckle-inducing pantomime.
From films to musical performances, comedy shows to ballets, box offices across the country are revelling in the big return of theatre and cinema following the easing of Coronavirus restrictions.
Art galleries and historic houses too are flinging open their doors, displaying never-before-seen works and family-friendly attractions to engage even the smallest of visitors.
With such an array of festive spectacles on offer, we’ve rounded up the brandy crème de la crème of Christmas shows across the UK. But don’t just take our word for it, get browsing and booking – the proof is in the pudding…
Best theatre shows
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
This spellbinding adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2013 novel conjures the attempted take-over of the world by strange beings. First seen at the National in 2019, it deserves to match the success of their Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Duke of York’s, London WC2 (Telegraph Tickets), booking to Feb 12
A Christmas Carol
Sherlock star Mark Gatiss plays the ghost of Jacob Marley in his own inventive yet faithful version of the Dickens classic. Design and cast are top-notch. Adam Penford directs.
Nottingham Playhouse (nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk), until Nov 20; Alexandra Palace, London N22 (Telegraph Tickets), Nov 26-Jan 9
Matilda the Musical
Roald Dahl’s tale of a telekinetically gifted girl’s fightback against the forces of philistinism – as gloriously adapted for the RSC by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin in 2010 – feels as invigorating as ever.
Cambridge Theatre, London WC2 (Telegraph Tickets), booking to May 29
A Christmas Carol
Jack Thorne’s Tony Award-showered, carol-saturated adaptation, as directed by Matthew Warchus, returns, now with Stephen Mangan’s Scrooge adding a dash of sourness to its mince-pie sweetness.
Old Vic Theatre, London SE1 (oldvictheatre.com), Nov 13-Jan 18
Kander and Ebb’s 1966 classic gets a site-specific re-staging from director Rebecca Frecknall. Jessie Buckley, as Sally Bowles, and Eddie Redmayne’s louche Emcee ply their trade in a theatre transformed into the seedy Kit Kat Club.
Playhouse Theatre (theplayhousetheatre.co.uk), Nov 15-March 5
Life of Pi
A wonderful adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti, with spellbinding puppetry and video wizardry, of the 2001 Yann Martel bestseller about an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger who get shipwrecked together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2 (Telegraph Tickets), Nov 15-Feb 27
The Mousetrap of Christmas shows: almost three decades on from its first staging, Bill Alexander’s triumphant, wordless, dance-based adaptation of the Raymond Briggs story about a young boy who journeys to see Father Christmas with his snowman pal remains required viewing.
Peacock Theatre, London WC2 (Telegraph Tickets), Nov 20-Jan 2
The Play What I Wrote
The Olivier-winning comedy tribute to Morecambe and Wise is back, 20 years after it first wowed the West End. Sean Foley and Hamish McColl – the duo, known as the Right Size, behind the hit – are steering rather than appearing in the show this time. Expect a guest cameo at each performance.
Birmingham Rep (birmingham-rep.co.uk), Nov 27-Jan 1
The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage
Can two children, Malcolm and Alice – and their dæmon companions – keep infant-age, future-world-saviour Lyra Belacqua from harm? Nicholas Hytner directs an adaptation by Bryony Lavery of Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel, which takes place 12 years before the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Bridge Theatre, London SE1 (bridgetheatre.co.uk), Nov 20- Feb 26
A Chorus Line
When it comes to staging musicals, Nikolai Foster has an impressive track record – his Sunset Boulevard was 2020’s biggest redeeming theatrical feature. Now he turns to the multi-award-winning 1975 show that puts the spotlight on a group of Broadway hopefuls as they are put through their paces at audition. Adam Cooper plays the demanding director, Zach.
Curve, Leicester (curveonline.co.uk), Dec 3-31
Rosalie Craig stars as a fairy whose attempts to help a princess sleep turn into a nightmare, resulting in a 100-year quest to set the world aright, in this musical re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty by Tanya Ronda, directed by Rufus Norris.
National’s Olivier Theatre, London SE1 (nationaltheatre.org.uk), Dec 4 -Jan 22
The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart
Stuffed with folk ballads and pop songs, and written in droll rhyming couplets, David Greig’s ingenious yarn – about a highly strung Edinburgh academic who gets stranded by snow after a conference and winds up drinking with the Devil – gets a revival 10 years after it was first greeted with open arms in Edinburgh.
Royal Exchange, Manchester (royalexchange.co.uk), Dec 4-Jan 15
She Loves Me
Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who would go on to give us Fiddler on the Roof, also wrote this lesser-known 1963 delight (based on a Hungarian play), about two painfully shy shop workers who have answered lonely hearts’ ads and are exchanging letters with their unknown beloveds. Robert Hastie directs.
Sheffield Crucible (sheffieldtheatres.co.uk), Dec 11-Jan 15
In this smart homage to a bygone age of circus, a dozen internationally recruited acts perform dumbfounding feats of derring-do. The line-up includes “the cycling cyclone”, daring acrobatics within a giant spinning wheel and a contortionist, as well as puppetry from the team behind War Horse.
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (Telegraph Tickets), Dec 16-Jan 2
The Fir Tree
The Globe promises to deliver a “re-wilding” of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a tree so anxious to grow up that it can’t live in the present moment. Hannah Khlalil adapts.
Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1 (shakespearesglobe.com), Dec 20-30
Jack and the Beanstalk
One of the noisiest and warmest-hearted pantos in London. Olivier-winning Clive Rowe, the doyen of dames, returns for what will be the 120th anniversary of the beautiful venue’s original opening.
Hackney Empire, London E8 (hackneyempire.co.uk), Nov 20-Jan 2
Posh panto arises from its slumbers with Strictly Come Dancing judge Anton Du Beke making his pantomime debut as Buttons. Oonagh Cox takes the title role, while Olivier-nominee Rosemary Ashe is her Fairy Godmother.
Richmond Theatre (atgtickets.com), Dec 3-Jan 2
Donny Osmond, Julian Clary and Nigel Havers are among the “names” joining this year’s Covid-customised, panto-themed extravaganza with the world of variety amply represented by the kick-dancing Tiller Girls and Australian fire-dancers FlameOz.
London Palladium, London W1 (palladiumpantomime.com), Dec 4-Jan 9
After its 10th anniversary season was marred by Covid last year, the Olivier-nominated madcap attempt to relay seven pantos in 70 minutes returns. Co-written by former CBBC TV presenters Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, it’s a whirlwind of manic costume changes and cracker-worthy jokes.
Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (Telegraph Tickets), Dec 11-Jan 9
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Regional panto was something of a graveyard last year, but fingers are crossed for the return of Birmingham’s flagship circus-set show, postponed from 2020, and spearheaded this season by Jason Donovan as the Evil Ringmaster, ably supported by irrepressible local panto regular Matt Slack.
Birmingham Hippodrome (birminghamhippodrome.com), Dec 18-Jan 30
Bursting with good tunes and satirical fun, this Gilbert and Sullivan classic receives a fresh but faithful makeover in Scottish Opera’s new staging by Stuart Maunder. The cast is led by veteran king of patter Richard Suart as the Duke of Plaza-Toro.
Eden Court Highlands, Inverness (eden-court.co.uk), Nov 6-13
The Barber of Seville
Giles Havergal’s lively Welsh National Opera production of Rossini’s comedy is revived as a tonic for the times: though set around a Spanish piazza, it is full of light-hearted Italianate melody and witty repartee. Tomáš Hanus conducts.
New Theatre, Oxford (wno.org.uk), Nov 12-13; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Dec 2
The hilarious production by Mariame Clément of Donizetti’s late comic masterpiece pitting old age against youth features in Glyndebourne’s autumn tour, alongside the classic David Hockney-designed production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.
Milton Keynes Theatre (glyndebourne.com/tour), Nov 12; Norwich Theatre Royal, Nov 26; Liverpool Empire, Dec 3
Guest star Les Dennis takes on the comic role of Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty who has never been to sea, in ENO’s new, feel-good production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, directed by Cal McCrystal – a crowd-pleasing successor to his triumphant Iolanthe.
London Coliseum (Telegraph Tickets), until Dec 11
Wolf Witch Giant Fairy
A new family-friendly show for ages five-plus, billed as “a wild folk opera of music, mischief and magic”, in relaxed performances on the Royal Opera House’s smaller stage.
Linbury Theatre, London WC2 (roh.org.uk), Dec 10-Jan 3
Best music performances
St John’s 36th Christmas Festival
The capital’s most beautiful venue – a dazzling Baroque church – once again hosts a feast of seasonal music, including two Messiahs (one boasting a virtual choir combined with live soloists), and sacred music from the Renaissance era to now.
St John’s Smith Square, London SW1 (sjss.org.uk/whats-on), Dec 10-23
Tchaikovsky and the Magic Toybox
The Aurora Orchestra brings a fresh angle to everything they do, so this show for children – which weaves a new story from Kate Wakeling featuring ducks, dancing shoes and space rockets into ballet music by Tchaikovsky – is sure to be a winner.
Kings Place, London N1 (auroraorchestra.com), Dec 4-5 & 11-12
Guy Barker’s Big Band Christmas
The best bandleader and arranger in the country, Guy Barker, leads a festive swingalong, with singer and Jazz FM presenter Clare Teal, American vocalists Liv Warfield and Tony Momrelle, and a band packed with instrumental talent.
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (royalalberthall.com), Dec 10
Santa’s Countdown to Christmas
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is offering so many jolly seasonal shows it’s hard to know which to go for. It could be Swinging Christmas on December 11, tenor Russell Watson on December 27, the Puttin’ on the Ritz show on December 31 – or this show for children and families, featuring the Liverpool Philharmonic Children’s Choirs.
Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (liverpoolphil.com), Dec 19
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Candlelight
The enterprising City Music Promotions has gathered together some terrific young players to form the Piccadilly Sinfonietta, which will be playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons alongside Mozart and Pachelbel on a 24-date national tour.
St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh (citymusicpromotions.co.uk), Nov 19, then touring to Dec 30
Best Christmas films
Disney’s latest animated musical trills hello to the Madrigals, a magical clan from the Colombian mountains whose gawky daughter Mirabel lacks the family gift. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda provides the songs.
Cinemas, Nov 24
House of Gucci
Only the chicest outfits and ripest accents will do in Ridley Scott’s all-star satirical melodrama about the 1995 murder of fashion scion Maurizio Gucci, with Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons.
Cinemas, Nov 26
The Hand of God
Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) shapes a lavish coming-of-age drama around his own teenage years in 1980s Naples, with familial gaiety and turmoil, faltering sexual encounters, and Diego Maradona himself as an unseen formative presence.
Selected cinemas, Dec 3; Netflix, Dec 15
An uncharacteristically mellow Joaquin Phoenix stars in this exquisitely tender monochrome drama from Mike Mills, about a rumpled artist bonding with his nine-year-old nephew on a meandering road trip.
Cinemas, Dec 3
West Side Story
Behold the first musical of Steven Spielberg’s six-decade career: a reworking of the Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim smash about a melodious feud between two New York street gangs in the 1950s.
Cinemas, Dec 10
Best Christmas exhibitions
Meet Father Christmas
Santa and his elves are descending upon Trafalgar Square – and once the kids have visited his “snow-topped cabin in the woods” within the National Gallery, you can entice them into its permanent collection, where paintings such as Piero della Francesca’s Nativity (1470-75) provide plenty more festive scenes.
National Gallery, London WC2 (nationalgallery.org.uk), Nov 13-Dec 24
See more than 60 new works, including collages, linocuts and screenprints, by nature-loving, York-based illustrator Mark Hearld.
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield (ysp.org.uk), Nov 13-Feb 6
The Courtauld Gallery
At last! Following a multi-million-pound, three-year modernisation project, London’s treasure house of post-impressionist art opens its doors again to the public, with a new painting by Cecily Brown adorning its 18th-century staircase.
Courtauld Gallery, London WC2 (courtauld.ac.uk), from Nov 19
Christmas at Dennis Severs’ House
Struggling to get into the festive spirit? Take a candlelit tour – suffused with the scent of perfume and wood smoke – of the Grade II-listed Spitalfields house transformed by the far-sighted American Dennis Severs into a historical “still-life drama”. It follows the story of an imagined family, from the 17th century to the 19th, with rooms decorated in each period’s style, and new decorations for Christmas.
Dennis Severs’ House, London E1 (dennissevershouse.co.uk), Nov 25-Jan 9
The Princesses’ Pantomimes
Between 1941 and 1944 the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) and her sister, Princess Margaret, staged and performed in a series of Christmas pantomimes at Windsor Castle to raise money for a war-time charity. Visitors to the castle can now see six surviving costumes worn by the teenage princesses during the shows. Also on display are paintings created for the performances, on show for the first time in 75 years.
Windsor Castle (rct.uk), Nov 25-Jan 31
Best dance shows
The Nutcracker: Birmingham Royal Ballet
BRB’s regular Nutcracker is currently in the repair shop, being primped and preened for a grand 2022 reopening. So the company is performing, for the first time ever outside London, the whizz-bang David Bintley version it usually takes to the Albert Hall.
Birmingham Hippodrome (brb.org.uk), Nov 20-Dec 11; Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, Dec 28-31
The Nutcracker: Royal Ballet
This 1984 production of the 1892 Tchaikovsky favourite is pure gorgeousness, full of night-before-Christmas magic and terrific effects, playing out against Julia Trevelyan Oman’s opulent but oh-so-cosy Biedermeier-era designs. Very highly recommended.
Royal Opera House, London WC2 (roh.org.uk), in rep Nov 23-Jan 8
Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!
This dusting-off of the great Bourne’s zesty 1992 production is very welcome indeed, drawing glamorously on Hollywood musicals of the 1930s, and brimming with mischief. Intriguingly, it has also, we’re told, been “reimagined for the 21st century”.
Lyric Theatre, Manchester (Telegraph Tickets), Nov 23-Dec 4; Sader’s Wells, London EC1 (Telegraph Tickets), Dec 7-Jan 30
The Nutcracker: Scottish Ballet
This is a Nutcracker like no other – more chamber piece than festive spectacular, but a real intimate treat. Choreographer (and SB director) Christopher Hampson keeps things moving articulately and briskly, and Lez Brotherston’s designs are fun itself.
Edinburgh Festival Theatre (scottishballet.co.uk), Dec 1-31 and touring to Feb 12
Nutcracker: English National Ballet
Not the grandest version around, the Colly’s Nutcracker nevertheless has its own Christmassy charm. The dancing is almost invariably first-rate, and Tchaikovsky’s score is an evergreen treat.
London Coliseum, WC2 (Telegraph Tickets), Dec 16-Jan 8
Best comedy shows
Shaparak Khorsandi: It was the 90s
Mildly risqué tales of a misspent youth from one of the most reliably entertaining stand-ups in the country. Khorsandi’s tour includes a pre-Christmas stint at the Soho Theatre (Dec 13-23).
Salisbury Playhouse (shappi.co.uk), Nov 6 and touring to May 14
A perennial pleasure, this sharp Regency-frocked improv troupe creates a new Jane Austen spoof every night, based on suggestions from the audience.
Theatre Royal, Winchester (austentatiousimpro.com), Nov 6 and touring to Dec 19
Natalie Palamides: Laid
If you like your humour with a large dollop of surrealism, this show from oddball American clown and Netflix star Natalie Palamides is a must. An absurdist look at motherhood, it begins with her emerging from a giant foam egg. As The Telegraph’s reviewer put it in 2017, it’s like “a Margaret Atwood novel adapted by Vic Reeves”.
Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre.com), Dec 13-23 & 28-30, Jan 4-8
Brian Cox and Robin Ince’s Christmas Compendium of Reason
This festive variety show offers an unlikely but charming mix of comedy, music and theoretical physics. Comedian Ince and physicist Cox are joined by special guests.
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (royalalberthall.com), Dec 14
Tim Vine: Plastic Elvis
Vine has always, endearingly, been the embarrassing uncle of British comedy – and never more so than in this silly tribute to the King, in which he swaps his usual one-liners for crooning and hip-wiggling.
Eventim Apollo, London W6 (timvine.com), Dec 17, and touring to March 5
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