From a shoestring production in an old barn to a glitzy extravaganza, Thursford Christmas Spectacular is the perfect way to get into the early festive spirit. SIMON PARKIN reports and highlights other Christmas shows to book for now.

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For many people in Norfolk and thousands of others from across the country Christmas simply wouldn’t be Christmas without the Thursford Christmas Spectacular.

It is now regarded as the biggest Christmas show in the UK — possibly Europe — with more than 130,000 people expected to flock to the tiny North Norfolk village of Thursford between next Friday and the final performance on December 23.

The crowds will be entertained by an ensemble cast of more than 120 people performing a variety of dance, song, comedy and magic.

The show, being staged for the 35th year, features 23 dancers, 56 singers, a 32-piece orchestra and 76 different pieces of music. It has a budget of £3.5 million and will be performed twice a day for the 46-day run.

Such is the show’s reputation and loyal following that about 80,000 tickets for this year’s production were sold in the first week of last January.

John Cushing, the show’s director, producer and founder, and his team have been working on the show all year.

It has been a remarkable journey for Mr Cushing and associate director and general manager Geraldine Rye, who have been involved in the Thursford Christmas Spectacular from its humble beginnings.

It was staged for the first time in an old farm shed on a shoestring budget in 1977. There was a single performance featuring eight dancers from King’s College, Cambridge, and an organist, to a crowd of about 530 people.

Now the show attracts as many people as the Glastonbury music festival.

Mr Cushing said: “The show has just grown gradually each year and become massive. It was 10 years ago when we started getting more than 100,000 people coming to the show.

“We started to make it more professional, with more money spent on costumes and the cast and we get people from as far as Scotland, Devon, Swansea, Harrogate, all over the place coming to see it.

“It is amazing that we get all of these people coming to this barn in the middle of a field in what can seem like the middle of nowhere. Thursford must be one of the smallest villages in Norfolk and usually far away from vast amounts of people.”

He added: “The sheer size of this show, and the number of people involved in it, make it unique.

“You simply can’t see anything like this anywhere else and I think that is what draws so many thousands of people in from all over the country each year.”

The no-expenses-spared show sees more than £100,000 per week spent on cast wages. More than 1,000 costumes are made for the show and more than £30,000 can be spent on costumes for a single scene.

Last month the show scooped the Dance Award in the inaugural Norfolk Arts Awards.

Many of the people taking to the stage have previously performed in the West End. Two of last year’s performers immediately went on to land parts in the London production of Phantom of the Opera, one in a leading role.

Mr Cushing said: “We have some of the best performers in the country here.

With 50 coach loads of people arriving at Thursford every day, the show is estimated to be worth £10 million a year to the Norfolk economy.

Three-quarters of the people who come to the show from elsewhere stay in Norfolk for a mini-break which brings business to hotels, restaurants and attractions in the area.

In the past the show has had some very special VIP guests, including Prince William and Kate Middleton who attended one of the shows in 2010.

Mr Cushing said: “I am immensely proud of what this show has become and all of the people who work with me in putting it together.

“We never set out a business plan for this to happen all those years ago and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that it would become what it has.”

There will also be further festive fun at Thursford when its Santa’s Magical Journey attraction, offering the chance to meet lots of fantasy characters, including a snowman family, before making their way though the magical forest to reach Santa’s House where you meet the man himself, opens on November 17 then continue on November 18, 24 and 25; in December the dates are 1, 2, 8, 9 and 15-23.

■ Thursford Christmas Spectacular runs daily at 2pm and 7pm from November 9 until December 23, £36-£29, an extra £2 on Saturdays and Sundays in December, 01328 878477, www.thursford.com

FESTIVE FUN — BOOK NOW

ALADDIN

Norwich Theatre Royal, December 18-January 19, £20-£5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

With some spectacular set-pieces, dance routines and corny jokes, the Theatre Royal panto is always a family must-see show at Christmas. Oh yes it is! This year its Aladdin, probably the most traditional festive panto. Heading the cast will be Hollyoaks favourite Lucy Dixon with former Bill star Graham Cole playing the villainous Abanazar. Also returning to the show this year is popular panto dame Richard Gauntlett, who also writes and directs the production. This will mark his 12th Norwich pantomime bringing his traditional blend of humour, slapstick and family entertainment to the show and his role of Widow Twankey.

CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR

Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth, December 15-January 13, £19-£13 (£15-£13 cons), £12.50 children, 01493 844172, www.hippodromecircus.co.uk

The Hippodrome Christmas Spectacular Circus & Water Show has become one of East Anglia’s most popular festive shows with one of the largest casts in Europe, with over 60 circus performers making a spectacular alternative to traditional panto. Host and co-producer Jack Jay said “We are constantly searching the planet for the world’s greatest and most exciting circus acts to bring to this atmospheric and historic arena, and we’re now all looking forward to our festive Christmas season with an all new show that will feature the world’s greatest circus artistes.”

CHRISTMAS SEASIDE SPECIAL

Pavilion Theatre, Cromer Pier, December 1-30, £19-50-£10, 01263 512495, www.cromer-pier.com

Now in its eighth year, Cromer Pier’s Christmas Seaside Special is a spectacle for all the family, guaranteed to fill you with sparkle and festive cheer.

This year’s Golden Celebratory show continues the feel good factor of the past year with inspiration taken from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations and the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Home grown comedian Olly Day is back for his fourth successive show, joined this year will be comedienne Jo Little. At literally 4ft 10ins tall Jo might be small in stature but she is huge in personality. Also returning is the singer Lulu Alexandra, joined by male vocalist Eddie Bushell. The show combines big production numbers featuring well known Christmas songs such as Happy Holiday, Walking in a Winter Wonderland.

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Sheringham Little Theatre, December 8-January 5, £16.50-£15.50, £11.50-£10.50 children, £52-£48 family, 01263 822347, sheringhamlittletheatre.com

Sheringham’s Little Theatre is promising its biggest and best ever panto this year — and hopefully won’t be relying on magic beans to make it sprout. The magical tale of a brave young hero who faces an unexpected and scary battle as a result of throwing away a few ‘harmless’ beans is always a festive favourite.

Written and Directed by Killian Donnelly, this year’s production is their most ambitious with a mix of the traditional tale and modern twists, comedy, mayhem and music for all the family. They’ve introduced a professional cast including the welcome return of Russel Hicken as Dame Molly Coddle, together with local dancers and young performers.

THE TINDERBOX

Norwich Puppet Theatre, December 22-January 5, £7.50 (£6 cons), £5.50 children, £22 family, 01603 629921, www.puppettheatre.co.uk

A roguish soldier acquires a tinderbox, which gives him the power to magically summon three extraordinary dogs to do his bidding. The dogs bring him riches beyond his wildest dreams, but his fortunes quickly take a turn for the worst. Watch the soldier’s remarkable roller-coaster adventure reach dizzy heights and plunge dark depths; will he survive and win the love of the beautiful princess?

The Tinderbox is a captivating and visually inventive retelling of the classic Hans Andersen tale, which has been especially created by Norwich Puppet Theatre for this Christmas. The show is suitable for families and children of four and above, and is told using a scintillating mix of puppetry and animation with an evocative soundscape.

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