Quality matters, not quantity. It's one of those cliches that reverberates in my head at certain moments. In the run-up to Christmas, a time when you can't see the wood for the tinsel-festooned trees - oh no, you can't! - my head is positively throbbing with the admonishment. With more than 40 pantomimes and family Christmas shows playing in London at the moment, tis the season to be discerning afore ye fork out thine readies.
Among the early wave of Christmas shows, an unalloyed gem (particularly for those who delight in mixed metaphors) is Beauty and the Beast, adapted and directed by Laurence Boswell at the Young Vic. With virtually no set or props, Boswell has drawn on the original French folk tale to create a world that moves from the real world of Beauty's family, fallen to misfortune and poverty, to the ultra-magical realm of the Beast's palace, where nothing is as it seems.
The themes of illusion and reality, of the corporeal and the subconscious, are reflected in the staging, designed by Anthony MacIlwaine. Lights, colours and doorways create illusion. Actors become torches which become lifts. Beauty herself transforms from a girl whose father is her bedrock to a woman who absorbs the White Witch's repeated admonition to "See with more than your eyes" by falling in love with the Beast. The eclectic mix of music and dancing styles, from 18th century French to Irish Riverdance to mournful chants, coupled with the stark but familiar otherworldliness of the Beast and his domain, left me with a sense of wonderment.
Beauty and the Beast at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, is an altogether different story. This is the realm of panto, from the mandatory explosion to scare us out of our wits to the bossy Dame, aka Mrs Buller (Michael Bertenshaw), to Beauty's atrocious sisters, refugees from Cinderella ("Uncross my legs, will you?" one of them barks to Beauty). The double-act of Candy, the pink-suited, pink-bouffanted fairy godmother, and Snowdrop, her apprentice, help to manipulate the action, in opposition to the wonderfully malign Dolores (Yvonne Edgell). While there's not much in the way of Freudian overtones to Beauty's development, Philip Hedley's gloriously multi-racial production, written by David Cregan, is a rollicking couple of hours.
So is Jack and the Beanstalk, the London Bubble's show at the Albany Empire. The Bubble's "pantos with attitude", directed by Jonathan Petherbridge, have developed a reputation for good, old-fashioned, vaguely anarchic, double-entendre-filled fun among the good burghers of south-east London. Jack is no exception. Few companies can play their audiences or pull off the political references quite like the Bubble. In this show, the evil Giant is MacDoch, a hybrid of McDonald's and a certain global media magnate better left unnamed who wants to get rid of poor Jack, his mum, Mrs Trott (hysterically performed by Simon Thomson), and their inevitable cow. The plot is suitably circuitous but moves at a ferocious pace, thanks to a wonderfully gross BSE routine, the absurdist antics of two clownish baddies (Nicholas Khan and Pui Fan Lee), a slapstick pastry scene and a lot of wise-cracking. I came out of the theatre thinking, "millennium, shmillennium, good panto will survive forever". Or something along those lines.
I started with a couple of Beauties and I'll end with one. A sleeping one this time. The Little Angel's Sleeping Beauty, adapted by Gregory Motton, is performed by some of the oldest marionettes in the late John Wright's 35-year-old company. The extraordinarily intricate puppets, including a wildly ugly, green-faced witch, perform a wittily scripted version of the fairy tale to the live spinet accompaniment of the Tchaikovsky ballet score.
The bewitching of the entire kingdom to sleep is masterfully accomplished, arranging the characters in an open-fronted tower, in which, one after the other, they drop off. Seasons pass with the aid of red leaves scattered on green gauze until a succession of clownish would-be suitors get the run-around from a mysterious pilgrim-like figure. At last, the real Prince arrives: green eye-shadowed and camp as hell, but obviously Mr Right. Sleeping Beauty and the kingdom reawaken, everyone is happy and the good fairies float overhead, bearing a garland of flowers in which to frame the two lovers. It's the stuff of dreams. Sigh.
* Sleeping Beauty at the Little Angel Marionette Theatre, 14 Dagmar Passage, Cross St, London N1 (0171 226 178). Until January 26
* London Bubble's Jack and the Beanstalk at the Albany Theatre, Douglas Way, Deptford, SE8 (0181 692 4446). Until January 4
* Beauty and the Beast at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford E15 (0181 534 0310). Until January 25
* Beauty and the Beast at The Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London SE1 (0171 928 6363). Until February 1
* Other London shows: Scrooge at The Dominion Theatre (0171 416 6052)
* Aladdin at the Richmond Theatre (0181 940 0088). Starring Bonnie Langford and Bernard Cribbins
* Robin Hood, traditional Victorian panto at The Players Theatre (0171 839 1134)
* Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood at Wimbledon Theatre (0181 540 0362) Next week: more reviews of seasonal London shows, including Christmas Carol at the Lyric in Hammersmith