PATRICK MARMION reviews Miracle On 34th Street and Snow White 

Miracle on 34th Street (Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool)  

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Snow White (Richmond Theatre, Surrey) 

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On the window of the Liverpool Football Club shop near Merseyside’s Playhouse Theatre there’s a message from manager Jurgen Klopp: ‘It’s the season to believe.’

Tim Parker in Miracle on 34th Street

Tim Parker in Miracle on 34th Street 

Klopp’s right as usual. We could all do with a bit of old-fashioned Christmas spirit. And that’s what Gemma Bodinetz offers, with her delightful production of this musical, based on the 1947 movie.

It’s the paradoxical tale of a Manhattan working mum who’s trained her daughter not to believe in Santa Claus. ‘I don’t believe in anything I can’t see, smell, taste or touch,’ the daughter insists firmly. That is, until she meets cuddly Kris Kringle, who’s filling in as the shop Santa at Macy’s department store, where her man-resistant mother works.

The trouble is that Mr Kringle thinks he really is Santa. So the authorities want him sectioned. The show features some pleasingly narcotic numbers, including Here’s Love (during which Kris controversially advises children where to find toys in rival department stores), and one humdinger: It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.

Bodinetz’s production channels the Technicolor innocence of the classic Hollywood movies. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is restrained rather than raucous, and Olivia Du Monceau’s set evokes the great Christmas window displays of yore, with glittering gift boxes wrapped in shiny ribbon.

Caitlin Berry has a rich, fruity voice as the mum who has a pleasingly snappy way of dealing with suitors. Stuart Reid is the butt of most of that scorn as a tenacious neighbour and, as the girl, Maddison Thew made a thoroughly adorable sceptic when I saw it. But in Tim Parker they have a Santa to end all Santas: warm, whiskery and as Christmassy as figgy pudding.

Jo Brand in Snow White. Having got into trouble with comments about politicians and battery acid, Jo Brand is putting that behind her with a stint in Richmond's panto. She plays Queen Lucretia, who's intent on doing away with Snow White with a poisoned apple

Jo Brand in Snow White. Having got into trouble with comments about politicians and battery acid, Jo Brand is putting that behind her with a stint in Richmond’s panto. She plays Queen Lucretia, who’s intent on doing away with Snow White with a poisoned apple

Having got into trouble with comments about politicians and battery acid, Jo Brand is putting that behind her with a stint in Richmond’s panto. She plays Queen Lucretia, who’s intent on doing away with Snow White with a poisoned apple.

Brand’s best joke was a reference to her favourite dessert, Eton Mess ‘or Boris Johnson, as I like to call it’.

At times, her manner is so deadpan it looks like boredom. But my focus group (two nine-year-old girls) wasn’t bothered, and agreed that Muddles, played by Britain’s Got Talent finalist Jon Clegg, was their favourite.

A whizz impersonator, he gives us Simon Cowell, The Donald and Bojo. Plus he’s a dab hand at tongue twisters, including ‘Shirley Shaw’s sister Sharon sells sushi in the sushi store . . . ‘ (seashells are so last century).

There are glitzier, lewder and more raucous pantos, I’m sure. But with its warmly local atmosphere, sparkling sets and a Gollum-like animation in the Queen’s mirror, Richmond’s festive offering is good family fun.

These two toy stories are spellbinding   

Coppelia (Royal Ballet, Covent Garden)

Verdict: Cats meets Coppelia

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Nutcracker (English National Ballet, Coliseum)

Verdict: The spirit of Christmas

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The reason my young daughter really, REALLY wanted to go to Coppelia wasn’t just that she likes ballet. No, it’s because the production featured Francesca Hayward, formerly best known as one of the Royal Ballet’s principals, but now, in my daughter’s school at least, idolised as the star of the new Cats film.

Here, Hayward plays Swanilda: a perky, spirited village girl whose fiance, Franz (the engaging Alexander Campbell) falls in love with a beautiful doll in a window, called Coppelia (also performed by Hayward), whose creator, Dr Coppelius, wants to bring her to life to have something to love.

Here, Hayward plays Swanilda: a perky, spirited village girl whose fiance, Franz (the engaging Alexander Campbell) falls in love with a beautiful doll in a window, called Coppelia (also performed by Hayward), whose creator, Dr Coppelius, wants to bring her to life to have something to love

Here, Hayward plays Swanilda: a perky, spirited village girl whose fiance, Franz (the engaging Alexander Campbell) falls in love with a beautiful doll in a window, called Coppelia (also performed by Hayward), whose creator, Dr Coppelius, wants to bring her to life to have something to love

The tale of a man who creates a female figure that other men fall in love with may be nothing new (think Pygmalion), but with the rise of humanoid robots, it feels very now, too.

This is also irresistibly expressive, comic ballet. Gary Avis hobbling about as Dr Coppelius is poignant rather than creepy.

There’s so much to enjoy, not least Osbert Lancaster’s jolly, Germanic set and impossibly picturesque costumes, created for Dame Ninette de Valois’ 1954 production.

Barry Wordsworth, as conductor, plainly loves Delibes’ tuneful, melodic score and sets a cracking pace.

What Coppelia and the Nutcracker have in common is that both are inspired by E.T. A. Hoffman, that spellbinding, sinister storyteller. But the Nutcracker as a ballet, with Tchaikovsky’s magical score, has taken on a life of its own as a Christmas staple,.

The English National Ballet has been performing it for nearly 70 years, during which time it has gone through ten productions. Wayne Eagling’s version from 2010, on now at the Coliseum, has all the beloved familiar elements – but there are some confusing changes to the norm. Clara (the impossibly nimble Erina Takahashi), has two heroes to dance with: the Nutcracker (a splendid Skyler Martin) who seems interchangeable in this production with the magician’s nephew (Francesco Gabriele Frola, also outstanding).

Another change is that the turbanned Arabian dancer in Act II doesn’t threaten his harem with a whip – instead he gives his girls a gentle push. Has feminism finally got to ballet? Let’s hope not.

As ever, I completely fell for King Rat – he’s way too splendid for a mouse – danced by Daniel Kraus with tremendous menace, who appears here from start to finish.

Just one quibble: the story starts off with a Christmas Eve Party where St Nicholas (the original Father Christmas) makes a star appearance. Could someone tell him he’s meant to be blessing the children, not waving at them like Santa in Selfridges?

All the fun of the fur in Hackney  

Dick Whittington and His Cat (Hackney Empire) 

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Dick Whittington (Theatre Royal Stratford East) 

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Hackney Empire’s pantomimes are a long-standing capital favourite, and writer and director Susie McKenna excels herself with a hugely enjoyable Dick Whittington and His Cat set in Windrush-era London.

She is helped by a vibrant cast led by panto debutant Tarinn Callender as migrant Dick, and old hand Clive Rowe — one of our greatest Dames — as Sarah the Cook in his 13th appearance in Hackney’s panto. Both men have tremendous voices which get plenty of opportunity to shine.

For such a traditional art form, McKenna’s modern(ish) redux works surprisingly well, as she seamlessly weaves old and new: songsheet, stage business and groaning puns (not all of them about Dick and his purring puss) are present, but so is a heartfelt message about diversity and inclusion, as well as sharp current political references. The cast’s efforts are repaid with gleeful audience involvement.

Hackney Empire's pantomimes are a long-standing capital favourite, and writer and director Susie McKenna excels herself with a hugely enjoyable Dick Whittington and His Cat set in Windrush-era London

Hackney Empire’s pantomimes are a long-standing capital favourite, and writer and director Susie McKenna excels herself with a hugely enjoyable Dick Whittington and His Cat set in Windrush-era London

Annette McLaughlin (Queen Rat, who has a sidekick called Boris) and Tony Whittle as Alderman Fitzwarren give great support and provide strong comedy, while the ensemble musical numbers (under the direction of Mark Dickman) are a standout treat.

At Stratford East, there’s another Dick. This one is presented as a mash-up with the Pied Piper story, as King Rat steals children away to capture their dreams (which gives him his life force), and purists may quibble that there’s little actual panto in this musical adventure created by David Watson and directed by John Haidar

Annette McLaughlin (Queen Rat, who has a sidekick called Boris) and Tony Whittle as Alderman Fitzwarren give great support and provide strong comedy, while the ensemble musical numbers (under the direction of Mark Dickman) are a standout treat

Annette McLaughlin (Queen Rat, who has a sidekick called Boris) and Tony Whittle as Alderman Fitzwarren give great support and provide strong comedy, while the ensemble musical numbers (under the direction of Mark Dickman) are a standout treat

Our intrepid Dick (a sweet Severine [GRAVE ON FIRST E] Howell-Meri) ventures forth from the turnip patch he farms in Ilford — not to find riches in Ye Olde London, but to drink lattes and eat avocados as a woke bloke in modern-day Stratford.

King Rat (Tom Giles, giving the show much needed oomph) does his best to stymie Dick’s plans in a story that veers a long way from the original tale.

Robert Hyman’s songs aren’t terribly catchy but there are some zingers in the script about the useless mayor of London, who happens to have a blond mop. It’s performed with a lot of heart but the thin story is overstretched.

 

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