A Christmas Carol
“I am a great man!” Ebenezer Scrooge defiantly exclaims at the end of act one as the beautiful carol Oh Holy Nightreaches a crescendo of emotion. Minutes later, with hands placed on his own coffin, having been told this is the future by the Spirit of life yet to come, he chirps “well that’s hardly a surprising future.” Those two contrasting moments capture the wonderfully entertaining dichotomy of Matthew Warchus’s production of A Christmas Carol (Old Vic), a version by Jack Thorne. It’s probably the most humorous and cranky adaptation you will see, full of wit, self-loathing and hilarious narcissism, culminating in his gleeful change.
This year’s star turn is Christopher Eccleston, who having left the Tardis back in 2005, has carved out a career playing an eclectic range of roles garnering excellent reviews while also being outspoken about the lack of opportunities for working class actors. His Scrooge has a dynamism and weirdly self-assured persona for somebody so screwed up. There are several laugh out loud moments and his jocularity and playfulness with the audience is actually quite refreshing when compared to the typical sour old curmudgeon. But it is the transformation and redemption that moves most, personified in those precious moments with Tiny Tim (the best yet) which will almost certainly have you welling up.
Then of course there’s Marley and the three Spirits, his despair at having lost his one true love Belle, trying to make amends with his family, and the final celebratory scenes, when he comes to love Christmas – “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year” – with fruit and veg thrown onto the set (with our help), a turkey flying in on a zip wire, two young volunteers carting on a huge wobbly jelly, and just when you have sensory overload there is snow fall. Oops I almost forgot those delightful bells. Bells? You’ll need to see it to understand what I mean. It may be a Wonderful Life for some but there just is nothing like A Christmas Carol at this most wonderful time of the year.
Christmas at the Royal Albert Hall
A visit to the Royal Albert Hall in a week was very much hit and miss. A Christmas Gaiety opened with the buoyant BBC Concert Orchestra playing a festival medley of carols and Christmas songs conducted by the snazzily attired Edwin Outwater who also co- hosted with drag queen Peaches Christ. It sparkled momentarily here and there, but for the most part, the banter was tame and passé. Sandy Toksvig did her best to up the ante dressed as the lost Christmas Elf adding some wit to proceedings. There were however two outstanding highlights. Queer icon Le Gateau Chocolat first spoke a few words in tribute to Sinéad O’Connor and then performed a rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U which felt like an intensely moving eulogy. His rich baritone voice begins underground and when it comes up for light, those sweet dulcet tones touch raw nerves. Similarly, organist Anna Lapwood gave us a performance of the theme from The Da Vinci Code which filled the capacious auditorium with an enormously euphoric sound. Two goosebump moments.
Edward Scissorhands (Sadler’s Wells)
In a castle high on a hill lives a boy Edward; the creation of an oddball inventor, who unfortunately left the poor lad unfinished with only scissors for hands. Tim Burton’s film of 1990 which brought the tale to life is given the Matthew Bourne glitter dust treatment in a New Adventures production of Edward Scissorhands (Sadler’s Wells) that will warm the cockles of your heart. Taken in by a kindly townswoman the poor boy struggles to fit in with a suburban community who cannot see beyond his appearance to the innocence and gentleness within. It is compelling and entertaining storytelling using dance, expressive movement and a narrative that for the most part is clear if a little surreal in places.
Kerry Biggin plays the welcoming Peg Bogg and she along with husband Bill Boggs (Dominic North) provide Edward with the warmth and affection he needs. Their children meanwhile, Kevin (Xavier Sotiya) and Kim (Katrina Lyndon) become best pals with him. They play their roles superbly and provide the cradle of affection into which Liam Mower’s fragile and appreciative Edward nestles. Mower is a picture of delicate humanity, a silent character whose facial expressions and movements say so much more than words could do. The bittersweet finale, which includes a disastrous Christmas Ball at which poor Edward accidentally snips Kevin is incredibly sad, but still manages to leave you with a nice feeling. Bourne skilfully treads a path between pathos and bathos and the multi skilled company hit all the emotional sweet spots me the choreography and execution are top quality.
The music, based on the original themes by Danny Elfman in the film, with new music and arrangements by Terry Davies is gorgeous, as is Lez Brotherston’s fantastical design with both set and costumes creating visuals that simply and effectively bring into sharp focus the contrast between those who want fair treatment for the lad and the cruelty of the fanatical community who want to see him gone. A beautiful show for Everyman.
Nutcracker (London Coliseum)
It’s Christmas Eve, young Clara is excited at what is to be. Outside the snow is falling and ice skaters are gaily having fun. Her godfather Drosselmeyer gives her an enchanted Nutcracker as a gift. She dreams it comes to life, fights a battle with some nasty mice and is then whisked off to a magical world of wondrous happenings where she meets a handsome stranger. The English National Ballet’s Nutcracker (London Coliseum), created by Wayne Eagling and first performed in 2010, remains the ultimate festive treat…and I am seeing it for the first time, which made me almost as excitable as Clara. The production has all the elements to enchant and delight leaving you with the warmest of Christmas glows.
The dancing is en pointe, some of the chemistry less so. James Streeter is a characterful and dynamic Mouse King and Cossack Erik Woodhouse leaps like a gazelle and lands like a cat. The masked Nutcracker Junor Souza is short and powerful but he lacks the charm and elegance when dancing with young Clara. Sangeun Lee on the other hand, a tall and leggy Clara, is a joy as she transforms into a graceful and regal Sugar Plum Fairy. Technically superb her movement is almost effortless as she glides into the arms of Gareth Haw, a Prince with poise and panache. Unlike Souza his lifts are strong and assured and together they paint beautiful pictures that are absolutely in tune with Tchaikovsky’s fabulous score, played with gusto and finesse by the English National Ballet Philharmonic. Great credit to conductor Daniel Parkinson who drew out beautiful colour and contrast throughout.
A mention also for the crisply executed work by the ensemble, the Dance of the Snowflakes being particularly memorable, another scene which combined with all that came before and after brought to mind a living, breathing version of a traditional Christmas card, better than any winter wonderland. Do not miss this traditional gem.
Get Happy (Barbican)
Inspired by work of Charlie Chaplin, Dr Seuss and Pina Bausch, Get Happy (Barbican)is a madcap event, that is quirky and downright bonkers. Conceived and produced by Told by an Idiot, it is one hour of pure unadulterated delight, laughter and chaotic fun! With high energy, this production comprises a collection of wonderfully surreal short skits, all of which contain a sense of spontaneity and play. They stand alone as comedy, dance, acrobatics, live sound and music, and have a cohesion in which the minimal props – such as a bag, paddling pool, a pair of red pants – and characters including a human rabbit, reappear.
This physical theatre show, which contains little speech and no script, takes place in the round in a relaxed, informal layout of cushions and low chairs placed around the edge of the simply decorated performance area. The lights are up throughout the performance and audience interaction (for the younger audience members) is encouraged. Ranging from toddlers to retirees, all present were captivated from beginning to end. A delight!
The Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square
The Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has for many years offered up an eclectic range of concerts that include some of our finest musicians and choirs. Last week I enjoyed an evening in the company of the Choir of New College Oxford under their Director Robert Quinney, for a programme titled A Babe is Born. It included traditional and contemporary, and the contrast was beautifully nuanced as the choristers took us from gentle, ethereal moments of quiet reflection into frisky seasonal merriment which they appeared to relish. With such a varied programme, performed at such a high level it is almost churlish to pick out personal favourites, but I was especially taken with There is no rose, a medieval carol, composer anonymous, simply beautiful. The harmonies in Maginificat Quiniti Toni (composer Hieronymus Praetorius) are divine and the choir absolutely nailed them while Walden’s Peace on Earth is one of those cut crystal treble solos for which our boys are so renowned across the globe. A babe is indeed born and with concerts such as these, we will never forget that. A word too about this glorious venue with such lovely acoustics; add it to your list as their year-round programme has something for everyone.
Coming full circle I would also like to add a few words to what Tomas has described. I was at St Martin in the Fields on Sunday for their service of Nine Lessons and Carols, which also included superb choral work. However, I mention it to remind you all that the opportunities to listen to these wonderful choirs are manifold right now, faith or no faith, right across the country and I would urge you to take advantage of what is on offer. You may not see the light but your ears, and maybe your heart, will definitely benefit from the outing.