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Surprises behind the camp classics and big frocks

Heather Neill finds tales of the unexpected in the best of the season's offerings from panto and beyond

You read it here first: Sooty has a doppelgAnger. Or possibly a clone. It may be difficult to believe that the furry little chap has split his tiny self in two but, according to Qdos Entertainment's list of this season's pantomimes, he's starring at both the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, and the Grand Theatre, Swansea, in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Let's hope he doesn't have to be all three in each case.

At least Frank Bruno will be on hand to help out in Southend. One can only guess whether the famous boxer will say "'Arry" frequently in his gravelly voice-with-laugh-attached, but it will be a lost opportunity if he doesn't, for Christmas shows - and Qdos has 27 of them everywhere from Aberdeen to Plymouth - are often intended to corroborate what you already know about some of your favourite people. Why, here's Julian Clary in Cinderella at Woking. Anyone want to take bets on the number of camp innuendoes that might have crept in among the Buttons and see-through slippers? And will Melinda Messenger avoid mentioning Celebrity Big Brother in Birmingham's Aladdin? Oh no she won't!

To be fair, I'm guessing. Jon Conway and Nick Thomas, who make up Qdos, take pride in keeping scripts fresh. There are also a few up-market actors among their casts this year, including John Nettles (ex-Royal Shakespeare Company) at Plymouth, and Robert Powell (who once played Jesus on television) at Richmond, both in productions of Peter Pan.

But, if comforting certainty is one of the pleasures of Christmas theatre, the folk tales and classic stories that lurk in its ancestry tend to celebrate surprise and discovery, to be about "rites of passage", about growing up and learning to cope with the world. The most satisfying seasonal offerings are usually those that make no bones about saying so.

Even that traditionally saccharine treat for little girls, The Nutcracker, is a tale of first love, of the difference between fantasy and reality. Matthew Bourne's production , Nutcracker!, at Sadler's Wells in London, first staged in 1992, will please those who delight in magic, romance and spectacular dresses; but it is funny and cheeky enough for older brothers as well. The sometimes cloying sweets have a touch of tartness for once, with a supercilious, chain-smoking knickerbocker glory, a set of flirtatious marshmallows and a trio of flamenco-style Liquorice Allsorts among them.

Bourne begins the story in a bleak orphanage, where the children revolt and escape to skate on a frozen pond. Clara, in love but thwarted, is aided by bespectacled twins from the dormitory, who are transformed in her dream into bewinged cupids - still in their striped pyjamas.

At the Young Vic, known for inventive children's shows that stretch the imagination rather than provide passive entertainment, audiences are being treated to an unexpected version of Sleeping Beauty. Even the well-known 19th-century version is replete with sexual imagery, from the spindle to the princess's awakening. But Rufus Norris has delved further into its history and presents a less passive heroine with some harder lessons to learn.

Beauty is kissed by her prince by the interval, but that isn't the end of the story because, handsome though he is, he's half ogre and it is in an ogre's nature to eat human beings. The young husband seems to have his nature under control, but what about his mother? The happy couple take their two children to meet the mother-in-law from hell, and a Titus Andronicus-for-juniors (with children as supper) is only just averted.

Norris, who also directs, has adapted the tale from the 18th-century Charles Perrault version and combined two characters, the Good Fairy and the Witch into a wonderfully funny, ambiguous creation, Fairy Goody. That she farts every time she casts a spell is only one of her unusual attributes. Medieval-style singing, a drum-like stage with clattering trap doors through which comes the forest, and Breughelesque costumes contribute to the magical, edgy atmosphere.

Norris believes in giving his audience - and that means anyone over six - something to chew on: no one is simply good or bad and life presents complicated problems after that magical first kiss.

There is, of course, magic elsewhere, often in adaptations from books. David Almond's Secret Heart, about young Joe's fascination with the circus, promises to transport children at Manchester's Royal Exchange. Roald Dahl's The Witches exude evil at Leicester Haymarket. Dick King-Smith's Babe the Sheep Pig is having his identity crisis at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and, at the Soho Theatre in London, The Gruffalo, adapted from the picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, tells of a mouse's adventures in a dark wood where he uses stories to fight off predators. This one, with songs and humour, is suitable for three-year-olds and over.

The Gateway Theatre in Chester has a tradition of combining literacy projects with children's shows. Kipling's The Jungle Book has been adapted by Richard Williams for a modern audience, keeping some of the poems as songs, but updating the Biblical-style language and getting away from Edwardian codes of behaviour. The excitement of the stories is there, though, with Mowgli meeting all the familiar animal characters - austere Bagheera, the panther; the friendly bear, Baloo; and magnificent Shere Khan, the tiger.

As in all the best shows, gripping storytelling is central. Local children who see The Jungle Book are writing their own, based on Kipling's Just So Stories. The Gateway education department is performing a specially-devised play in schools in which the children make plot decisions and learn to structure a narrative. And that, I suppose, is a different rite of passage: coping with (and even enjoying) national tests. But for now: let the show begin!

For information about Qdos Entertainment pantomimes: www.Qdosentertainment.comTickets Nutcracker!, 020 7863 8000; Sleeping Beauty (also Beauty Sleeps for under-fives), 020 7928 6363; Secret Heart, 0161 833 9833; The Witches, 0116 253 9797; Babe the Sheep Pig (also Ho Ho Ho for under-sevens), 029 2064 6900; The Gruffalo, 020 7478 0100; The Jungle Book, 01244 340392 (teachers' pack: 01244 318 006).Other shows Ophaboom's commedia dell'arte Robin Hood, with masks and physical comedy, is at Riverside Studios, London, 020 8237 1111; Alan Ayckbourn's The Jollies, 'magical mayhem for all the family', is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough: 01723 370541; Tim Pigott Smith stars as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Lyric, Hammersmith: 020 8741 2311; Prince Ivan meets wolf, princess and witch in his search for The Firebird at the Watermill, Newbury: 01635 46044; Clwyd Theatre Cymru presents a rock and roll panto, Robin Hood and The Babes in the Wood: 0845 330 3565; stunning sets and awesome special effects are promised in the De La Warr Pavilion's Peter Pan, Bexhill on Sea: 01424 787949; see a chariot race at close quarters in Ben-Hur at BAC in London: 020 7223 2223

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