Plays like 'Coram Boy' avoid seasonal sentimentality

LONDON — Once upon a time, as all good Yuletide tales begin, Christmas theater programming in Britain could be summed up in a single word: pantomime. Entire families flocked annually to this peculiarly British entertainment. For more than a decade, however, London has bucked the trend with many venues providing alternatives to trad seasonal fare. This year is no exception.

Family audiences are still targeted — the weeks around Christmas are the U.K.’s annual box office zenith — but that doesn’t mean a deluge of sentimental, feelgood mush. Take the National Theater, for instance, which is bringing back last year’s SRO hit “Coram Boy.”

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s award-winning children’s novel embraces slavery, digging up skulls and child murder. It also has a pulse-quickening story of determination rewarded, and glorious live singing of Handel’s “Messiah.” The production is fine-tuning plans for a Broadway transfer.

That show’s designer-director Melly Still is also responsible for “Watership Down” at the Lyric Hammersmith, an adaptation of Richard Adams’ 1970s bestseller about rabbits fighting for survival.

Lyric a.d. David Farr is very clear about “Watership’s” place on his calendar. “This is no different from the rest of the year,” he insists. “I strongly believe in great stories. Audiences want theatricality and adventure.”

What Farr does promise is an increased production budget. “A lot of the great stories travel to different imaginative worlds so designers and directors need the resources to create them,” he says.

He argues Christmas shows are at their best when refusing to condescend to audiences: “Theater is not good when cynically packaged. Celebration is an integral part, but does not mean it all has to be gift-wrapped.”

That view is echoed by David Lan, a.d. of the adventurous Young Vic, indisputably the theater with the strongest track record in fight-for-a-ticket, maverick seasonal entertainment. The trend began under Lan’s predecessor Tim Supple, whose stripped-down “Grimm Tales” was a massive hit, ditching the traditional trappings of fairy stories and drawing auds into the heart of the material with an imaginative economy of means.

“Tim did his show as part of his standard program,” observes Lan. “It was so successful he brought it back at Christmas.”

Under Lan’s aegis, the seasonal shows have included Rufus Norris’ malevolent reinterpretation of “Sleeping Beauty” and a boisterous “Tintin” — tipped for West End revival in 2007.

This year he is presenting Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s “The Enchanted Pig,” based on a frog prince-type folktale which, being entirely sung, hovers somewhere between music-theater and opera. The plot is a variant on a well-known fairy tale but is otherwise a far cry from the machinery of modern pantomime.

For decades, pantomime as a holiday staple kept London stages busy with 12 perfs a week of a story stuffed with songs, slapstick, extravagant costumes and extended comedy routines and encouraged audience participation, with the villains hissed and good guys cheered. Not to mention TV celebrities and soap stars interpolated into the action and, as centuries-old tradition demands, a girl in the principal boy’s role and a man as the so-called “dame.”

Panto-lovers won’t be starved this year, however. There are 18 in the Greater London area alone. The most intriguing is “Dick Whittington” at the Barbican.

Louise Jeffreys, the Barbican’s head of theater, is buoyant about the building’s first ever panto. “In previews, daytime audiences have screamed with pleasure,” she says. “It’s like a party. The more adult evening audiences seem to love it, too.”

Commercial panto annually recycles scripts, sets and costumes to increasingly tired effect. The Barbican’s show is all new with a script by Mark Ravenhill, the author of “Shopping and Fucking.” And yes, it really is for all the family.

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