SANTA has paused his flexitarian diet in order to achieve the requisite level of rotundness. The recruitment process is under way to find the turbo-charged Usain Bolts of the reindeer world. And Jeff Bezos is offering thousands of short-term contracts to leave brown boxes on doorsteps in the rain for 12 quid an hour.

Yes, Christmas is around the corner – and for ­Scotland’s theatres, that means the opportunity to welcome some of the biggest audiences of the year.

Indeed – following the Covid-enforced closures of the past two years – the 2022-23 festive season is being greeted with particular excitement by theatre companies big and small.

From the Theatre Royal, Dumfries (where ­Rapunzel plays from December 3 to 17) to The ­Garrison ­Theatre, Lerwick (Jack and the Beanstalk, December 3-17), rehearsals are under way on a ­startling array of pantomime and family theatre.

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Wrap a plaid around me and call me Rob Roy, but 28 years as a theatre critic has convinced me that Scotland has, by a distance, the strongest pantomime tradition in the UK. The reason for this is quite ­simple: in Caledonia, pantomime has kept its roots firmly in the traditions of the music hall.

On the Scottish stage, the very serious business of being funny at Christmas time remains moored in the work of such greats as Jack Milroy, Gerard Kelly, Rikki Fulton, Johnnie Beattie and, the most brilliant of pantomime dames, Stanley Baxter. Walking in Baxter’s high-heeled footsteps these days are such excellent dames as Allan Stewart (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh), Alan Steele (Byre Theatre, St Andrews), Johnny McKnight (Tron Theatre, Glasgow), Alan McHugh (His Majesty’s, Aberdeen), Barrie Hunter (Perth Theatre) and Jimmy Chisholm (Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock).

The pre-eminence of the dame in panto means that the lead roles tend to be dominated by men. However, there have been women – not least Janette Tough, aka “Wee Jimmy Krankie” – who have bucked the trend.

Tough may have retired from pantomime, but the Scottish pantosphere can still boast one ­famous ­female lead. Star of stage and screen Elaine C Smith is the headliner in Beauty and the Beast, arguably Scotland’s ­greatest ­traditional pantomime, at the King’s Theatre, ­Glasgow.

The National: Beauty and the Beast at the King’s Theatre has a top cast including Rachel Flynn, Johnny Mac and Blyth DandooBeauty and the Beast at the King’s Theatre has a top cast including Rachel Flynn, Johnny Mac and Blyth Dandoo (Image: Newsquest)

The thing that unites all of the acts I’ve mentioned above is that each and every one of them was or is a top-level comic actor. This stands in stark contrast to pantomime in England, where celebrity culture has come to the fore.

What's on in England?

South of the Border – in what might be seen as a precursor to celebrity-driven reality TV shows like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and Celebrity Big Brother – it has long been the norm to cast famous non-actors in lead roles in pantomime. The ­attraction is not their ability to perform but, rather, the ­comedy of, for instance, seeing boxer Frank Bruno in a frock.

The array of non-actor celebs who have taken to the English pantomime stage is extraordinary. Over the years, England’s Yuletide boards have been ­trodden by the likes of cricket legend Ian Botham, celebrity strongman Geoff Capes and star of How Clean is Your House? Kim Woodburn.

This year, you can catch celebrity ­lawyer Rob Rinder in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Milton Keynes, ­Debbie McGee (one-time sidekick to her TV ­magician husband Paul Daniels) in Cinderella in ­Basingstoke, or Anne Hegerty (off The Chase) in Beauty and the Beast in Swindon. This liberal sprinkling of ­“famous off the ­telly” celebrities among the musical ­theatre ­artists, comedians and actors in English panto is very much at odds with the ­Scottish tradition.

What's on in Scotland?

FOR example, the King’s Theatre, ­Glasgow – where Stanley Baxter was just one of many famous actors to ­headline in the panto – remains the epitome of ­Scottish pantomime. Smith takes on the dame role of Mrs Potty (mother to ­comedian and actor Johnny Mac’s ­pantomime dafty Johnny Potty) in this year’s staging of Beauty and the Beast (November 26 to December 31).

Smith and Mac are joined in an all-star cast by Blythe Jandoo (Belle), Rachel Flynn (the Enchantress) and (returning after his acclaimed debut in last year’s Covid-curtailed Cinderella) the superb Darren Brownlie (as Belle’s super-clever brother Dougal).

Smith was, for a number of years, the lead in the panto at His Majesty’s ­Theatre, Aberdeen. This year – in a tilt ­towards the English, celeb-led pantomime tradition – the headline performer in His Maj’s Peter Pan (December 3 to January 8) will be Brendan Cole, the ballroom dancer from Aotearoa (aka New Zealand) who shot to fame in the BBC TV show Strictly Come Dancing.

Worry not, however, Cole (who plays Captain Hook) will be performing ­alongside one of the most impressive and experienced Scottish pantomime ­artists in Alan McHugh. The Scottish ­actor has not only been the Granite City’s ­uber-dame for many brilliant years, but he is also the writer of the Aberdeen show (among a plethora of pantos that he writes every year).

Add to that the excellent actors Paul J Corrigan and Aberdeen’s own ­Danielle Jam and you can be confident that Cole’s performance and the inevitable jokes about ballroom dancing will be ­entirely at the service of a proper Scottish ­pantomime with a fabulous Aberdonian twist.

The National: Festival Theatre’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs led by Jordan Young, Allan Stewart and Grant StottFestival Theatre’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs led by Jordan Young, Allan Stewart and Grant Stott (Image: Newsquest)

Edinburgh’s biggest panto, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (which stars Allan Stewart and Grant Stott), has been ­relocated this year from its ­traditional home at the King’s Theatre to the ­beautiful Festival Theatre. The show (which will run from December 17 to January 22) has had to move to the east side of the city centre because the King’s is closed for a currently cash-strapped ­refurbishment.

As of August, the theatre’s owners Capital Theatres had fundraised almost all of the estimated £25 million initially required for the redevelopment work. However, the economic turbulence of recent times has created a funding gap of an additional 20% to 30%. Famous actors Brian Cox and Gabriel Byrne are among those calling on the powers that be, including the UK Government, to step in to save the grand old playhouse for the nation.

PRECARIOUS though the King’s future may be, the festive show must go on. So, Dame Stewart, Stott, Jordan Young and Clare Gray (daughter of the much-missed King’s panto star Andy Gray, who died in 2021) will lead the production’s cast on a stage more accustomed, in recent times, to opera and ballet than music hall ­comedy. A raucous, traditional panto (sprinkled with gags about Stott’s beloved Hibernian FC) is in prospect. Oh yes it is!

Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen may boast the big three shows of the ­Scottish pantosphere, but there is ­uproarious pantomime fun to be had throughout the country.

Glorious Dame Alan Steele leads ­proceedings in Snow White at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews (December 1-31), while the fabulous Barrie Hunter will, no doubt, be donning a series of outrageous frocks in Perth Theatre’s Jack and the Beanstalk (November 25 to December 31).

Not to be outdone, the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock’s panto Aladdin ­(December 9-31) boasts a star-studded cast led by the irrepressible Dame ­Jimmy Chisholm. Meanwhile, over in ­Paisley, the extraordinary PACE ­Theatre is ­staging its 33rd Christmas show with the panto extravaganza Cinderella (at The Art Department at the Paisley ­Centre, December 7-31), while up at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, there’s a full-on panto staging of Peter Pan ­(December 7 to January 8). Not all pantomimes, it should be said, come in the traditional style. Glasgow’s Tron Theatre has long been the home of the tongue-in-cheek, pastiche panto.

This year is no exception. The fantastic Johnny McKnight is once again writer, ­director and leading dame on The ­Wonderful Wizard of Oz (November 23 to January 8). Pastiche it may be, but ­McKnight’s Tron panto is still very much a family show, as is Maw Goose at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling (which is also written by McKnight and plays from November 30 to December 31).

By contrast, the Oran Mor in ­Glasgow’s irreverent take on pantomime conventions, Rab Hood & the Sheriff of ­Shettleston (November 29 to December 31), is a lunchtime carry-on for adults only.

Nor is pantomime – be it pastiche or otherwise – the only type of festive theatre in town. Scottish theatre has long offered an impressive line in story-driven Christmas plays for audiences of all ages.

The National: Citizens Theatre’s Red Riding Hood will be held at the Tramway, starring Cindy AworCitizens Theatre’s Red Riding Hood will be held at the Tramway, starring Cindy Awor (Image: Newsquest)

That is particularly true of ­Glasgow’s ­acclaimed Citizens ­Theatre ­Company, which this year presents Lewis ­Hetherington’s new version of the ­adventures of Red Riding Hood ­(December 9-23). Playing at the Tramway venue in Glasgow (while the ­considerable redevelopment work on the Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals is concluded), the show stars up-and-coming young, ­Scottish actor Cindy Awor and is ­directed by the Citz’s award-winning director Dominic Hill.

What's on in Edinburgh?

Over in Edinburgh, the Royal Lyceum Theatre reprises its charming 2019 show An Edinburgh Christmas Carol (November 24 to December 31). Directed by the excellent Tony Cownie, the show is a ­stylish, funny, musical delight.

Also in Auld Reekie, Lyra and ­Catherine Wheels present Once Upon a Snowstorm at the Traverse Theatre (December 9-23). Aimed at children aged five to eight and their families, the piece is based upon Richard Johnson’s popular picture book.

Telling the story of a boy’s woodland adventure in the midst of a snowstorm, it promises to be an imaginative and engaging piece of festive theatre.

Dundee Rep always seeks to offer a ­story-led alternative to pantomime. The Tayside company’s staging of ­Cinderella (November 26 to December 31) is a ­musical theatre version of the much-loved tale. Played by the Rep’s ensemble, the show’s cast includes Annie Louise Ross (who will be warmly remembered by many as Grannie Island in the CBeebies show Katie Morag).

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Last, but by no means least, the Rep’s Tayside neighbours up at Pitlochry ­Festival Theatre are offering the tale of Peter Pan and Wendy (November 18 to December 24). As the show’s title ­suggests, Janys Chambers’s version of JM Barrie’s famous story will give Wendy (played by Fiona Wood) the prominence she deserves. Director Ben Occhipinti’s cast includes Colin McCredie (of Taggart fame) and Deidre Davis (River City).

SO, there you have it, just a selection of the festive theatrical fare on offer across Scotland this Christmas. From the big-name pantomimes in the country’s largest cities, to a lunchtime panto for adults and a charming winter’s tale for younger children, the sheer depth and breadth of the work on show stands as a testament to the resilience of Scottish theatre in the face of the pandemic.

Two years ago, our theatres were dark. Last year the runs of Christmas shows were disrupted by Covid within companies or the emergency restrictions brought in by the Scottish Government in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.

It is a cause for Christmas cheer, ­indeed, that Scottish theatre has recovered so strongly over the last year that we now have such an array of pantomimes and Christmas theatre to choose from.