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Dickens of a time

Reva Klein drops in on the Christmas shows in London. As we hurtle towards the millennium, our yearnings for Dickensian Christmas offerings have never been greater. Cameron Mackintosh's revival of Oliver! at the Palladium (071 494 5020) looks set to be the Christmas box office hit this year and will no doubt be around for some time to come, too. With good reason.

Sam Mendes's production is a visual and musical delight, with memorable sets by Anthony Ward and terrific singing, particularly by Gregory BradleyJames Daley as Oliver, Sally Dexter as Nancy and Danielle DelguidiceRosalind James as Bet. Jonathan Pryce is a complex, new age traveller of a Fagin, perhaps a mite too gorgeous and good-natured. If you like your shmaltz spread thick, your music pre-eminently hummable and your knees definitely up, Oliver is for you.

The other Dickens extravaganza is rather less felicitous. The Royal Shakespeare Company's A Christmas Carol, adapted by John Mortimer and directed by Ian Judge, is weighted down by the very words which make the book so joyful to read. Putting large tracts of them into the mouths of the chorus is a mistake, resulting in a lot of shuffling bums and a loss of dramatic intensity. You know you're in trouble when only three noses are blown when Tiny Tim's death is revealed - and none of them is yours. Clive Francis's Scrooge is enjoyably hunchbacked, crabbed and camp in his fussiness and John Gunter's set is pretty. At the Barbican Theatre (071 638 8891).

Another sumptuous set, this time over-the-top exotic, is the one designed by David Collis for Andy Rashleigh's adaptation of Aladdin at the Unicorn (071 836 3334). Richard Williams' production is a knockabout adventure panto that, in the best Unicorn tradition, doesn't forget the adults. The partnership of Rashleigh and Williams is becoming well nigh unassailable for some of the most intelligent, beautifully-crafted children's theatre around. And not for the first time, Kieron Smith steals the show as the dastardly Abanazer.

Neil Bartlett's The Little Match Girl at the Lyric Hammersmith (081 741 2311), is a curiosity: a panto that is sometimes too earnest to be a panto and at other times appears to be a pastiche of one, mixing historical periods with gay abandon and getting away with it all because of its good humour and sunny nature. But ultimately, Leah Hausman's production is as thin as the poor little match girl herself, played by Sian Reeves. Keeping it all together is grandma Terry Neason, a dead ringer for Mrs Doutbtfire, whose genteel bawdiness is the focal point of the show. Worth seeing for possibly the only stage appearance of dancing mashed potatoes anywhere.

It's a very different Christmas show at the Cochrane (071 404 5662), where Talawa Theatre treats us to the delights of a Jamaican jonkunnu or street festival. In the last century, the only days when Jamaican slaves were given free time was during the three days of Jonkunnu over Christmas. Maskarade, written by Sylvia Wynter and directed by Yvonne Brewster, tells the story of how the British governor of Jamaica came to ban Jonkunnu in 1841 after a particularly spirited play ended with the death of two of the actors. While the first act gets bogged down in wordy scene-setting, it's worth waiting for the intense vibrancy, colour and comic hi-jinx in the second. If you don't dance in your seat, you probably aren't alive.

Jonathan Petherbridge's London Bubble pantos (which he both writes and directs) are becoming a Christmas tradition in south London. Dick Whittington is one of the best reasons I know for shlepping down to the Albany Empire in Deptford (071 237 1663). Raucous, silly, fast and musical, it has the audience in its thrall from the moment the man-sized rats start making cracks about banking with the Rodential and singing songs in which journey rhymes with murney (money). Anachronisms come thick and fast as do the time-honoured panto gags involving cooking. Chris Larner as the redoubtable Mrs Fitzwarren is a dame and a half - as well as the composer and lyricist.

Lastly, lavishly but leastly there's Babes in the Wood, part of Cadbury's pantomime season in association with Save the Children at Sadler's Wells (071 713 6000). Written, directed by and starring Roy Hudd, it made me feel as if I were witnessing some ancient, esoteric theatrical ritual: jokes about the more noisy bodily functions, custard being poured down elderly men's trousers and music and dance numbers straight out of Las Vegas in the 1950s had everyone roaring with laughter and clapping like the clappers, particularly when Neighbours star Julie Mullins as Maid Marion, Jack Tripp as the Dame and of course 'Orrible 'Uddy 'imself were onstage. But I have to admit there were a couple of good one-liners, like the Sheriff of Nottingham's introduction of himself: "If you want sleaze and nasty things I'm your feller; I'm Nottingham's answer to David Mellor."

* Ratty, Mole, Badger and big-headed Toad have stormed the National Theatre as successfully as they retake Toad Hall and oust the dastardly Weasles and Stoats in a revival of Nicholas Hytner's vivid production of The Wind in the Willows. Alan Bennett's adaptation allows the charm of the original to shine through while providing a hilarious, sharply-detailed analysis of English class prejudice. Mark Thompson's delightful revolving set is a star in its own right (071 928 2252).

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