A GIANT beanstalk and fluffy chickens filled the atrium of Winchester's Theatre Royal on Thursday (September 20) as this year's pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk, was launched officially.

Staff at the Jewry Street theatre are predicting it will follow in the footsteps of last year's panto, Aladdin, and be a big hit.

This year's production, which will run from December 6 to January 2, will feature many of the names who made last year's pantomime a success, including Cbeebies star, Phil Gallagher, who will play Silly Billy.

Mr Gallagher, who is currently staring in the children's TV series, Mister Maker, said he was delighted to be asked back and was looking forward to working in Winchester again.

He said: "I had just a brilliant time and enjoyed it so much that when I was lucky enough to be asked back there was no thinking about it."

Writer and director, James Barry, said this year's pantomime was set to be bigger and better than last year's, which smashed the theatre's box office records and saw more than 14,000 take their seats.

Mr Barry, who also wrote and directed Aladdin, added: "We learned from last year that the audience loves participation so we've got more of that, lots of nice set pieces and even more fun."

Fiona Burn, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, said: "I have no doubt that this year will be an absolute smash. The Christmas pantomime is the most important show of the year and it's all about showing the theatre off to its absolute best and entertaining the audience in the best way we know how."

She and other theatre managers are keeping tight-lipped about how they will bring a giant to the stage and whether they will have a real cow in the show. She added: "If you want to know how we did it, you will just have to come and see the show. It is quite something to behold and we know audiences will love it!"

Ticket prices for Jack and the Beanstalk vary from £6 to £13 for children and £8 to £17 for adults, with discounts for groups, schools and concessions. To book telephone the box office on 01962 840440 or visit www.theatre-royal-winchester.co.uk.