They're garish, they're gorgeous and usually they make you laugh. Norma Cohen visits London's panto-land.
In Stratford East's music-hall tradition, Patrick Prior's anti-austerity Jack and the Beanstalk pressed all the right buttons: toddlers shook rubber coshes and hardened 15-year-olds shouted, "Go for it!" and "Good luck to yer!" as smart-Alec Jack attempted to climb "300ft of broccoli".
This must be the only "Jack" that boasts a tiny giant suffering from an inadequacy complex: a double-jointed Bill Thomas as a genuine, Max Wall-style funny man. You could hear the audience's empathy motors whirring as he stepped, shrunken, out of his giant, slippered frame. A zippy evening in a building whose red plush interior resembles a perfectly-restored Pollock's toy theatre, but with a lively, beating heart. The perfect antifreeze for the current, chilly snap.
Cinders are all a smoulder this Christmas. I walked home humming from Polka's zesty Gaelic version, The Starlight Cloak, for over-5s which boasts traditional music with tin whistle and bodhran drums, and fine step dancing from a powerful Irish cast. Dramatised by Irish writer Greg Lyons, it's embellished with obscure, mythical characters, an emerald slipper magicked from a loaf of bread, a cloak that comes out of a milk churn and our heroine Una perched up a cliff top to be (temporarily) consumed in the body of a whale.
Una's dad, King Curucha, dumps her on her godmother when his wife dies; her friend Cormac has no parents at all and even husband Conor, Prince of Ulster, keeps going off to the wars, just like her dad.
You can detect psychological joins in Lyons' lilting, pro-peace script with feminist murmurings ("I'd never marry a man who only wanted a woman for the size of her feet") but magic prevails with a sparkling cloak that, to hushed gasps, emerges from and returns to the stars.
Gifted young writer Peter Oswald delved into Grimm for his wild fairy tale in blank verse, Cinderella and the Coat of Skins. The result is a dark script (hints of blood lust and incest) with a sting in each line. Oswald dreams up a human beast wearing a charmed coat sewn from the skins of a thousand animals and, like Mother Courage, making a living out of war.
Bold staging by young company Hysterico Passio is boosted by war-mongering aunt (Caroline Nichols) who swallows souls and Sarah Knight as a scullery maid fantasising about her amazing, retreating army.
Elsewhere, the production is sprawling and disjointed, but the few five-year-olds dotted among the sea of young, adult faces seemed captured by the glittering turns of fate cast to Lara Bobroff's wide-eyed heroine.
Tina Williams trained as an infant teacher specialising in drama before forming the Pied Piper Theatre Company. Her understanding of children shines from the new run of her musical play for three to nine-year-olds, The Enchanted Toyshop, educationally-based to complement key stage 1.
Scrooge-like shop-owner-cum-astrol-oger Mr Tweezledown prices his toys too high for children. With only his telescope to keep him amused (providing a quick trip round stars and planets), he hits on a spell to bring objects to life. These thinking children's toys use brain not muscle to help build a giant spaceship that turns into a bridge which allows Leggo to cross to the Planet of Opposites. An endearing, child-centred show with an irrepressible Jack-in-the-box.
Hackney Empire's Cinderella has three glorious stars: drag Ugly Sisters, Lav and Loo, flaunting the most sensational wigs in town and Nicola Duffett as Fairy Godmother. There's a tap dancing chorus line from Bright Sparks Theatre School, a real dog jumping through a real hoop and a sexy Prince Charming in Ben Onwukwe.
The audience cackled over the topical setting: the old nag's called Dalston; Baron Hardup lives in condemned property and Buttons dolls up Cinders in a tablecloth for a ball gown, a colander for a hat and a 9-carrot necklace. The colours are dayglo, the sets lavish and ENO costumes stupendous. A feel-good panto for all ages, it's garish; it's thigh-slapping; it's gorgeous.
Jack the Beanstalk: Theatre Royal, Stratford East until January 27 (0181 534 0310); The Starlight Cloak: Polka Theatre until February 3 (0181 543 4888); Cinderella the Coat of Skins: Battersea Arts Centre (0171 223 2223) until January 13; The Enchanted Toyshop: Fortune until January 6 (0171 836 2238) Cinderella: Hackney Empire until January 6 (0181 985 2424)