Looking for a Christmas show to see in and around Belfast? This is what’s on and what they’re like

Pinocchio, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Untold Truth of Captain Hook, and Jingle All the Hairspray

It’s been a long time coming. With last Christmas effectively cancelled and live performance on ice for what has seemed like an eternity, the subtitle of the Lyric’s family show Pinocchio: The Greatest Wonder of the Age registers like an audible sigh of relief for the whole theatre world.

Glancing through the listings in and around Belfast, one is seized with a sense of Groundhog Day. Dame May McFettridge & Co are letting rip on the stage of the newly renovated Grand Opera House; the MAC has teamed up with an established independent to produce a bespoke family show; the actor and writer Caroline Curran and some usual suspects bring sassy comedy to Theatre at the Mill; and, at the Lyric, the musical-theatre maestro Paul Boyd is back in the driving seat with a glossy new take on an evergreen tale.

Boyd can always be relied on to take a tangential approach to a story we think we know so well. It's no surprise that his musical Pinocchio (★★★★☆, Lyric Theatre, until Friday, December 31st), postponed from Christmas 2020, is influenced more by the darker elements of Carlo Collodi's original folk tale than by the cute little imp of Disney's famous 1940 animation. Indeed, the famous nose, which lengthens with every fib, barely registers in this musical allegory for human transformation and the importance of family.

The beautifully packaged storyline unfolds through a combination of live instrumentals and irresistible songs, performed by a cast of seven actor-musician-singers

The setting is a shabby travelling circus, which has been locked to the public for years and is about to reopen under the malign management of the bearded Swallowfire (Allison Harding), self-anointed queen of the sideshows. In a small wooden boy, hewn from a branch of the dying tree of truth, she spots a lifeline. She will groom him to be the greatest wonder of the age.

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Paul Currie’s marionette, gently manipulated by sad-faced Christopher Finn, comes alive to the song of the Blue Fairy (Eimear Fearon). Swallowfire plots to possess him, as she does the rest of her downtrodden troupe, stopping at nothing to halt his heart’s desire to find his “father”, the old woodcarver who made him.

When the confused child briefly lies to himself, causing his nose to grow a few alarming inches, his new-found friends and foes rise up in mutiny, guiding him towards the human identity and sense of belonging he so desperately seeks.

The beautifully packaged, if somewhat contorted, storyline unfolds through a combination of live instrumentals and irresistible songs, performed by a cast of seven actor-musician-singers. But beneath the glossy packaging, attention is drawn to a multitude of young people journeying alone through hostile environments in search of family and safety.

The big top resurfaces in the city's big glitzy panto Goldilocks and the Three Bears (★★★★☆, Belfast Grand Opera House, until Sunday, January 9th). Alan McHugh's thoroughly modern script breathes new life into the tired, predictable format of previous years, and in response the cast and production team turn in performances noticeably cranked up several notches.

Like Boyd’s, McHugh’s storyline operates on two levels, significantly removed from the traditional picture-book treatment of a pretty girl and three tubby bears who turn nasty when she eats their porridge. He focuses attention on to the issue of animal rights, encapsulated by the rivalry between Circus Von Vinklebottom and McFetty’s Circus.

The first trades in tamed animals and is run by the sadistic Countess Von Vinklebottom (the splendid Anne Smith). The second is a family affair, owned by Dame May McFettridge. It employs only talented circus professionals while offering a chance of stardom to Kira McPherson’s fluffy, tap dancing Baby Bear.

McFettridge is in fine fettle, recapturing the sharp, acidic wit of old, delivering a raft of genuinely funny routines alongside Adam C Booth’s cheeky clown Joey and her long-suffering sparring partner Paddy Jenkins.

The full dimensions of the immense Opera House stage are used to stunning effect by the accomplished dance troupe and design team, fully justifying the price of a ticket for a great night out.

Replay Theatre Company has teamed up with the MAC for another new take on an old story. In his new play The Untold Truth of Captain Hook (★★★☆☆, the MAC, until Saturday, January 1st), David Morgan seeks to uncover the back story of Peter Pan's ferocious, one-handed nemesis. It's an intriguing premise, gorgeously presented, with a shanty-inspired score, set inside a candlelit timbered cabin aboard a galleon bound for the high seas.

But, under Janice Kernoghan-Reid’s imaginative direction, the time-defying script tosses and turns to no great narrative effect, becoming downright confusing and inconsequential. It’s a pity that the small, hardworking cast (Niomi Liberante, Christopher Grant, Keith Singleton and Christine Clare) have so little to get their teeth into and that the untold truth of Captain Hook remains untold.

Jingle All the Hairspray (★★★★☆, Theatre at the Mill, until Friday, December 31st), directed by Fionnuala Kennedy, is Caroline Curran's first solo writing gig since the death of her friend and writing partner Julie Maxwell, in 2019. To squeals of delight from the audience, the lights go up on a candy-coloured beauty salon, the kind of place where women congregate for a day out, or a brief cosmetic emergency, to gossip, bare their souls and emerge looking gorgeous.

Glamorous Ali (Claire Connor) has worked hard to build up the Hairy Bears Salon while putting up with the feckless behaviour of her cheating husband, Dave (Patrick Buchanan). Her assistant, Tina (Caroline Curran), a reformed petty criminal, struggles with the dilemma of whether to reveal his sordid activities to Ali, while attempting to sort out her own faltering love life with an Amazon delivery man (Buchanan again).

To the accompaniment of Garth McConaghie’s pithy songs, a succession of weirdly wonderful characters (sassily played by Mary Moulds and Jolene O’Hara) arrive and depart, prompting howls of recognition across the auditorium. Curran and Kennedy successfully integrate broad comedy and great music with a touching story of female friendship, second chances and mutual moral support. Tremendous fun, with a heart of gold.