For the past 24 years thousands of people have enjoyed Red Rose Chain’s Theatre in the Forest, magical outdoor Shakespeare productions in settings such as Sutton Hoo, Rendlesham Forest and Jimmy’s Farm. But how many of them know about the company's annual Christmas show?

Artistic director Joanna Carrick and her team are on a mission to spread the news that if you enjoy Red Rose Chain's summer spectacular you'll love their festive winter treat as well.

'Although there is the obvious difference between our outdoor Theatre in the Forest and our indoor Christmas Show, the style is actually quite similar,' she says. 'Our Christmas shows have the same high energy excitement, that vital communication with the audience and the promise of a wonderful evening that Theatre in the Forest is known for.'

Great British Life: Red Rose Chain's The Magic Fishbone with Ailis Duff in 2019. Photo: Red Rose ChainRed Rose Chain's The Magic Fishbone with Ailis Duff in 2019. Photo: Red Rose Chain

Red Rose Chain produced their first Christmas show in 2012, The Magic Fishbone, an adaptation by Jo of the Charles Dickens’ classic, performed at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Without a theatre of their own, the following year they performed the show again, this time at Jimmy’s Farm, just outside Ipswich.

Then, with lottery funding and a lot of hard work, Red Rose Chain built their own venue, The Avenue Theatre, at Gippeswyk Hall, tucked away behind Ipswich railway station, and in 2015 staged a new Christmas show, The Tale of Mr Tod, again adapted by Jo, with three actors played multiple roles. All Jo's Christmas shows tell classical stories, brought to life in her inimitable style; Treasure Island, The Elves, and Alice in Wonderland, then last Christmas Wind in the Willows, a beautiful production that wowed post pandemic audiences.

This year sees a revival of The Tale of Mr Tod, allowing Red Rose Chain’s cast to delve into the wonderful world of Beatrix Potter, in a gorgeous family show with a host of beloved characters, from Mrs Tiggywinkle to the most villainous fox of all,Mr Tod!

A festive family visit to the theatre is very much part of the great British Christmas tradition, with pantomime dominating the offerings at this time of year. But pantomime did not originate in Britain; rather it derives from 16th century Italian street theatre made up of dance, acrobatics and music, featuring a range of mischievous characters. A stock character was Harlequin, complete with mask and patched clothing.

Great British Life: Darren Latham, Lawrence Russell and Leonie Spilsbury in Red Rose Chain's Alice in Wonderland (2018). Photo: Red Rose ChainDarren Latham, Lawrence Russell and Leonie Spilsbury in Red Rose Chain's Alice in Wonderland (2018). Photo: Red Rose Chain

Harlequin and his Italian troop danced their way across Europe and crossed The Channel to England, where, in 18th century London, early pantomimes were based on classical stories with music and no dialogue. Slapstick comedy became a staple and audiences were entranced, although legendary theatre manager David Garrick was not a great lover of pantomimes, as he felt they threatened more traditional productions, such as Shakespeare. He did, however, realise their commercial worth and played an important part in creating the annual Christmas extravaganza.

'If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give them Harlequin,' he famously said. Garrick’s compromise was to keep the pantomime for the Christmas season, thereby ensuring serious theatre was not threatened.

Red Rose Chain's annual Christmas show has its roots in pantomime and it is all about a shared family visit to the theatre. For many children this is their first experience of theatre; Jo describes how young people often walk into the theatre expecting a screen and are amazed to see people performing live. To Jo, this means a huge responsibility to ensure that young people are introduced to theatre in such a way that it becomes a life-long love. This is not just essential to the survival of theatre; a bad experience can mean an audience member misses out on something very special.

Red Rose Chain's community director, Katy Frost, works hard to ensure that people who would not normally be able to afford theatre tickets are given an opportunity to see a show. Every year free tickets are given to community groups and last Christmas, with the help of Arts Council England, the company went one step further and gave away over 500 tickets for Wind in the Willows to struggling families, to disadvantaged young people, to refugees and to young people and adults with disabilities.

Red Rose Chain places huge emphasis on its work with the community, running four life-changing community companies, developing and supporting participants with disabilities, mental health issues and economic disadvantage. Every ticket to a Red Rose Chain production, along with generous sponsorship from law firm Birketts and award-winning pub The Unruly Pig, supports the community programme, which is free to all participants.

Red Rose Chain’s Christmas shows don’t bow to every panto tradition. Adult humour delivered over the heads of children is something we have come to expect, but Jo feels this detracts from the true meaning of family entertainment. ‘Christmas is about laughing together,' she says. 'A Christmas show should be intergenerational, lots of fun with lots of silliness. But for me innuendo is a definite no.’

Red Rose Chain’s Christmas show loses nothing without the risque humour. The chase scenes, the hilarity, the costume changes, the audience interaction, the fantastic actors and the beautiful scenery illustrate their passion for producing theatre that delights and astonishes.

‘I love the excitement of the shows around Christmas time,’ says Jo. Last year’s show included visits to see Father Christmas, a wonderful magic garden and a Wind in the Willows story trail sparkling with fairy lights and pre-show drinks served from an Alpine Cabin in the theatre’s garden. This is a theatre company where the imagination does not stop at the stage door.

Great British Life: Red Rose Chain's 2023 production is a revival of Mr Tod. Red Rose Chain's 2023 production is a revival of Mr Tod.

December 8 - 31

The Avenue Theatre, Gippeswyk Hall, Gippeswyk Avenue, Ipswich, IP2 9AF

Tickets at or 01473 603388

READ MORE: Christmas shows and pantos in and around Suffolk 2023