Plenty to shout about: the verdict on pantos and Christmas shows

A round-up of shows around the country, featuring beanstalks, sleeping beauties, a Cowdashian, jokes for the adults and the chance for children to scream at the top of their lungs

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY Helix, Dublin * * * *

Social-media references come thick and fast in Theatreworx's production of The Sleeping Beauty, from the doorman who talks in tweets to the court stenographer chatting on Facebook. Fairy Sally (Rachel O'Connell) must somehow point nice guy Harry Smiles (George McMahon) in the direction of Princess Aurora (Lauren Nevin) so he can save her from her cousin, the evil Count Comovér (a brilliant Eoin Cannon).

This panto finds the cast working like a well-oiled loom. A frenetic chase scene is particularly dazzling, encompassing snatches of the Mission: Impossible theme, popular hits such as Get Lucky and a familiar routine from The Wizard of Oz.

Cannon channels Captain Hook and John Cleese into his character of Count Comovér. Liam Butler as panto dame Lola tosses out a few grown-up jokes while Colin Hughes as court jester Tickles and Aidan Mannion as the clueless Comere click with the kids by dressing as Minions from Despicable Me. Until January 12 Kevin Courtney

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS Gaiety Theatre, Dublin * * *

"Let's get this show on the road," shouts one of the dwarfs with gusto as the happy troupe first appear on stage about an hour in. I'd have to agree that things have been lacklustre up to this point. The dwarfs – six men and one woman – add charm, character and flair to the classic children's story, which ambles along without any major star pull (we expect well-known talent at the Gaiety). Younger children will really enjoy the energetic singing and dancing – our particular favourites are When I'm Gone, Titanium and Twist and Shout. The evil queen (Sharon Clancy), with her cackling laugh, menacing voice and dark costumes, is excellent. But there are few jokes aimed at older children and adults, and where is the dame? Come on, director Daryn Crosbie and scriptwriter Maeve Ingoldsby, you can do better. Until January 12 Sylvia Thompson


ANNABELLE’S STAR The Ark, Dublin * * *

At first sight, Annabelle lacks star quality – she has a stubby red nose that sniffs the air like a rodent – but looks can be deceiving. Although the sole character of this 45-minute non-verbal play is slow to wake for her impatient young observers, when she does the magic unfolds to reveal some visually remarkable scenes, plotting a simple and endearing story. From a giant illuminating present several objects appear and reappear, to the delighted gasps of children: a puppet version of herself, a pair of long white feathers and a series of musical boxes.

Set to a charming soundscape of dissonant bells, two stars keep watch over Annabelle as she endeavours to discover who she is and where she came from. She makes a beautiful transformation from Annabelle in the flesh to Annabelle as a star, and it is safe to say she is the kind all children want on the top of their Christmas trees: bright, warm and real. Until December 30 Jennifer Lee

LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD Waterfront Hall, Belfast * * * *

At pantomime time, a child's definition of a good time is a good shouting session. Lisa May's crackling production gives ample opportunity for shouting, booing and shrieking. Niall Rea's set comprises a library of fairy tales, whose giant covers are embossed with familiar, if slightly skewed, titles, such as Goldi Socks.

Patrick O'Reilly does not stray far from the story of the little girl doomed to become a wolf's dinner, but he also works in strands of the lost brother and sister who fall prey to a wicked witch, a mouthy blonde and three tracksuited Essex pigs.

The cast of five work wonders with Mark Dougherty's punchy song. Ross Anderson is a dame not to be messed with, Matthew Forsythe a loose-limbed, menacing Wolf, Julie Maxwell a pushy Goldi Socks, Adam Dougal a far-from-super superhero and Jolene O'Hara a pert, mischievous red-hooded one. Until November 30 Jane Coyle

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Everyman Palace, Cork * * * *

Surprise is the essence of pantomime, but having Jack’s magic beans propagated by a regurgitating goose raises the bar for any rival production. Writer Martin Higgins has stirred together the familiar elements of the story and has created a cow that delivers pasteurised milk and sliced cheese, genetically modified beans and a flatulent goose that’s productive at both ends.

Lee Mathews is a properly dim Jack, April Kelly his combative girlfriend, Jim Mulcahy the dame whose screeched vocals are challenged only by Fionuala Linehan's well-timed tantrums as Marjorie Dawe, while evil Michael Sands strides a thin line of villainy. Eamon Nash keeps his band in rattling good order and the lighting scheme by Tim Feehily adds glamour, making the most of excellent costuming by Lisa Zagone. Director Catherine- Mahon Buckley manages to preserve a narrative line and to allow some affecting singing, despite the tumultuous activity. Mary Leland

’TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS Pavilion Theatre, Dublin * * * *

Always approaching, ever receding, Christmas is a checklist of expectations based on a cluster of memories. In short, it’s tradition. The particular charm of Branar’s exquisite show for children is how it harkens back to rosy views of home and heritage while wittily moving things forward.

Bhaile Breac has recently been electrified, and an easily flustered múinteoir, Mrs Carson (Helen Gregg), plans to string Christmas lights through the town, making it the envy of the county. Two things are almost obscured by this progressive surge: the time-honoured sharing of Christmas candles, meekly guarded by sweet “Momo an bhaile” (Maura Greaney Daly), and the fact that everyone speaks partly in Irish.

It’s as rare to find a show that is as naturally, unfussily bilingual as one that matches homespun fun with spry intelligence. Director Marc Mac Lochlainn’s production is both: a delicate weave of old-fashioned storytelling and inclusive new approaches, where Olan Wrynn’s sparing set of crates and boxes will glow into a miniature town, five nimble performers adopt and dispense characters, or a Dalmatian puppy pounces to life through deft puppetry.

Between comical character sketches and the lulling music, there’s a still more heartening reconciliation than that between electricity and candlelight.

Well-crafted but light on its feet, glowing with nostalgia yet generously expanding its traditions, the show owes surprisingly little to the titular poem, wishing Nollaig Shona to all. An Taidhbhearc, Galway December 20 Peter Crawley

SLEEPING BEAUTY Grand Opera House, Belfast * * *

It is not an encouraging sign when an unscheduled mishap involving a bundle of toilet rolls precipitates the loudest laughter and applause of the evening.

Christmas audiences at the Grand Opera House have come to expect extravagant costumes and staging, celebs and insults in abundance from Belfast’s dame May McFettridge. All these elements are in place, but this version pitches us 21 years into the life of Princess Beauty (Rhiannon Chesterman), omitting the crucial placing of a curse on a tiny child. On her 21st birthday, Beauty pricks her finger on a miniature spinning wheel and nods off, at which point our pretty heroine will exist only in the lovelorn imaginations of court jester Muddles (Matt Edwards) and po-faced Prince Daniel (Aaron Hayes Rogers).

The battle for good and evil is played out by two pantomime veterans, the willowy Lorraine Chase as Carabosse and impressionist and vocalist Hilary O’Neil as Fairy Aurora.

The traditional show-stopping moment sees Muddles taking to the starry skies astride a motorbike, on a daring rescue mission. But the cast have their work cut out with a script requiring considerable filler, a curtailed storyline and all manner of dated musical numbers and pop-culture references. Until January 19 Jane Coyle

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Tivoli Theatre * * * *

“Fee-fi-fo-fum” may be a string of meaningless words, but sung from the thunderous lungs of a lonely old giant, it is poetry at its best: magical and gratifying, and unanimously understood.

This flamboyant Jack and the Beanstalk packs an almighty punch into its tale of the young Jack (Sean Carey), his friend Sammy Sausages (Alan Hughes), and his psychedelic mother Buffy Windmill (Rob Murphy), who, along with Jack's dancing bovine, Kim Cowdashian, completely steals the show.

In a stream of tightly directed scenes by Sean Gilligan, the cast roll out hit after hit between the gag-a-minute narrative by Karl Broderick. The set is spectacular in its magnification (particularly charming is the oversized table and chair). Attention to detail is paramount to the production’s rags-to-riches arc, not only displayed in the increasingly elaborate costumes, but even in the sound of the doorbell, which becomes posher once the Windmills have made their fortune.

Paul Ryder's compact choreography blends contemporary dance with a dash of line dancing and a touch of an Irish jig, and the finale ensures we all get involved in some sort of twerking routine to the beat of The Fox. Until January 12
Jennifer Lee

CINDERELLA Lambert Puppet Theatre, Dublin * * *

Poor Cinderella, treated like the dirt she sweeps while her stepsisters swoop and whoop at hide and seek, setting the scene and the pecking order. They dress for the ball in hideous splendour and deliver her orders in a funny, rhythmic tic-tac; pick up the peas, one at a time, wash them, one at a time, put them away in the box. And then she shall go to the ball. (“May-bee.”)

Anyone over seven might find the story thin, but the puppeteering is perfect, the costumes glister and the singing is bee-yoo-ti-ful, as the sisters say. There are some lovely effects in Cinderella’s transformations, and in the hint of ET-in-a-basket as the coach crosses the moonlit sky.

At the ball, the sisters two-step toe-stamp with the king while Cinderella and the prince share glittery twirls. And when Buttons hunts for the foot to fit the glass slipper, even the sisters' bunions and big toes can't run away with the show. December 27 to January 5 Joyce Hickey

ALADDIN Cork Opera House * * *

Several elements among the uproar redeem this production. There is aerial artist Angela Saez Garcia, whose daring and grace are a breathtaking distraction from the singing and dancing beneath her. Then there is Velvin Lamont, the Genie of the Lamp. Bryan Flynn shows his class in selecting an assertive character whose appearances have a hint of the subversive. And the transformation of the magic cave that holds the lamp delights the children.

But every time something magical happens, it is interrupted by a rush of audiovisual inserts. It's as if there has been a loss of confidence in stagecraft or performers to meet the expectations of a young audience ready to be charmed. There's no lack of hard work, including from the enthusiastic and very young dancers, and no one is more assiduous than the wardrobe assistants managing the many costume changes. Ends January 18 Mary Leland