1st December 2000 at 00:00
Don't look now, but the pantomime season is almost upon us. Oh yes it is! The residents of Brookside Close and Albert Square are migrating to stages around the UK and television personalities everywhere are donning extravagant wigs and tights.

No doubt, some, like Julian Clary (in Cinderella at Brighton) and Lily Savage (in Snow White at Southampton), need little encouragement to do so. There are sportsmen involved - Frank Bruno in Goldilocks at Milton Keynes and Robin Cousins in another Snow White, in Belfast - as well as old favourites like Jeremy Beadle (Aladdin, Bournemouth), Keith Harris and Orville (another Aladdin, New Brighton) and even, would you believe it (Oh yes you would!), Mr Blobby (yet another Snow White, Wimbledon).

But, hold on, keep King Rat out for the moment, there is plenty more happening before we give in entirely to a world of upholstered gents claiming to be Widow Twankey, strings of uncontrollable sausages and television personalities stumbling over pun-filled rhyming couplets.

In another part of the arts wood, a spectacular treat awaits anyone who can steal a few hours from Christmas shopping or rehearsing the school Nativity play to visit Somerset House in London. Cross the magnificent fountain court of Sir William Chambers's restored 18th-century colonnaded masterpiece and enter the extravagant world of Tsarist Russia. The first exhibition in the Hermitage Rooms, a suite of five galleries in the south wing established by the Hermitage Development Trust, is Treasures of Catherine the Great.

Catherine, a German princess who travelled to Russia to marry the future Tsar Peter III in 1744, eventually staged a coup and became empress. She was a cunning politician, learned - she corresponded with Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire - a patron and collector of the arts and a passionate woman who had many lovers. And she did not do things by halves.

Engraved gems became an obsession and, by the time of her death, she had amassed 10,000 cameos and intaglios and 32,000 copies of pieces in other collections. Every time she did something noteworthy, including having herself and her grandchildren vaccinated in the new manner against the smallpox, she struck a splendid gold medal.

Minerals discovered in rich mines in Siberia and the Urals were made into all kinds of objects for Catherine's court. Small vases and decorative obelisks made of lapis lazuli, jasper, onyx or malachite can be seen here, but not the three-metre-wide vase still at home in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

Intricately wrought armour, miniature paintings, gems - even her ladies-in-waiting wore elaborate, diamond-encrusted insignia - and a display of delicate Chinoiserie hairpins are all on display here, a tiny fraction of the treasures in Catherine's collection.

Don't forget to look at the floor: six kinds of wood have been delicately inlaid by hand in patterns that reproduce those in the Hermitage. And the dinner service, each plate decorated with an English scene and a tiny frog, was designed for a palace built on what had once been a swamp.

An inveterate party-giver Catherine may have been, but she disapproved of improper behaviour and drew up a list of rules, which included: "Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything." Pretty good advice for the modern exhibition visitor too.

The rooms are relatively small ("intimate" is the preferred word) so booking is essential, especially for groups. Tickets: 020 7845 4630. Information: A very different, but equally intriguing, building is the backdrop for IOU Theatre's latest project. Until tomorrow, this innovative company will be performing Cure at Dean Clough, a converted Victorian carpet factory in Halifax. Visitors, mainly students, find themselves being "wedding guests" when they arrive at the garage in the complex. Soon they are issued with hospital tags and asked to go to the Viaduct Theatre to observe patients, doctors and nurses in various hospital situations.

There is a serious side to this as the audience considers "attitudes to illness and health", but there is plenty of humour too. Although a performance piece is the culmination of the event, there are pockets of interaction. Enjoy listening to your own singing colostomy bag - if you can bear to. Tickets: 01422 369217.

It's always good to talk to enthusiasts, and music teacher Martin Yates is the kind who sweeps everyone else along too. The result is that, every other year, Gainsborough North County primary, Lincolnshire, mounts a full-scale production of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Last week 90 children, the whole of Years 5 and 6, put on Iolanthe in this anniversary year of Sir Arthur Sullivan's death.

Mr Yates says Gamp;S, "full of ready-made choruses", is an excellent way to introduce children to opera. He simplifies the tunes, but keeps their "essence" and finds children "wonderful at getting round Gilbert's words". His production of Iolanthe had a Chorus of Fairies and a Chorus of Peers, "57 of them, all in cloaks and coronets". When Mike Leigh's film Topsy-Turvy, which is based on Gamp;S, came to Gainsborough, there were queues of teenagers all wanting to relive their primary school experience.

Opera in Manchester is being promoted through the club scene and the Internet this week. A new one, based on Monteverdi's Orfeo, written by and for 16 to 25-year-olds, will receive its premi re at the Lowry, Salford Quays, on December 7, 8 and 9.

The story of Apollo's son, Orfeo, the god of music, who marries Euridice and follows her to the Underworld when she dies, is retold in the multi-media o4e. In this Opera NorthLowry initiative, the young people have worked with film-makers, an artistic team, including composer Kate Pearson and designer Louise Wilson, and a Manchester DJ, Sam DuPrez, to mix contemporary ideas and technology with the ancient story. Tickets: 0161 876 2000.

Chichester Cathedral was the setting for a performance of T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral presented by students and former students of Bishop Luffa school, drama students and members of the community, with Thomas a Becket played by Gareth Williams, a professional actor. The school's head of English, Barry Smith, marshalled his large cast in a promenade-style production. A case of making the most of local resources.

Courtney Pine, Britain's favourite jazz saxophonist, who featured in last week's My Best Teacher column, has been jamming with children in north London schools. Pine enjoys experimenting with mixing sound systems, drum and bass as well as hip hop and jazz, and often takes school workshops in the United States. It is a new departure for him in the UK, but more workshops are likely, for the moment in Hackney. He can be contacted via the Hackney Music Development Trust (020 8356 7409) or his management, Serious (020 7405 9900).

Well, I think that's about as long as King Rat can be kept at bay, so, back to pantos. King Rat, is, of course, the villain in Dick Whittington, which is this year's choice for the famous Chipping Norton pantomime. Those in the know will have been booking their seats in the simply named The Theatre since July.

Johnny Worthy, the director, says that, as ever, this year's offering will be "traditional, truthful and story-based" - and there won't be a celeb in sight. This afternoon a schools audience will be the first to see Dick seeking his fortune.

The writer, Jeff Clarke, and the cast have gone back to the real Whittington story in their preparations. "He came up from the West Country in time of plague wanting to do something to help debtors and orphans," says Johnny Worthy. King Rat is the obvious villain because rats were responsible for spreading the plague.

The clothes will be medieval ("well, pantomime 14th- century") and, despite the serious undertone, if last year's brilliant Cinderella is anything to go by, audiences will not feel short-changed in the humour and magic departments.

Two transformation scenes are planned, from prison to Wapping port and from underwater to the Sultan of Morocco's palace. There will be a song-sheet, a traditional Dame (Sarah the Cook played by Jim MacManus) and, of course, a Cat, played by dancer and acrobat Nicola Lloyd. The fairy godmother, known as "the Spirit of the Bells" (Kim Harwood) will have the expected sparkly costume, but will also become a tinker, a flower seller - whoever Dick needs to help him on his journey.

Primary schools in the area will be working on the Whittington story and can get a teacher's pack to help them. Education organiser Rupert Rowbotham is also inviting GCSE students to come to panto workshop days on January 9 and 10, when they will learn about putting on a pantomime - directing, costume, music, design - and see the show. These days are very popular, but tickets for performances are available at special group prices. Education information: 01608 649102; tickets: 01608 642350.

The Set Play column will return next week with a preview of The Tempest at the Almeida Theatre in London. Meanwhile, theatre reviews can be found on

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