Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Night Before Christmas – cast of six talented actor-musos in a quest to make books great again (The MAC until Sunday 7 January)

It may be The Night Before Christmas, but after a rousing opening number – Happy Christmas to All – it’s soon apparent that not all is well in Queen Talia’s land. The books are disappearing, the storyteller can’t remember her stories, and a bureaucrat is more set on making ‘his’ kingdom great again through citizens’ hard graft and suppressing creativity than fulfilling his role as the young monarch’s advisor.

Allison Harding excels as Noelle, bringing hard stares, raised eyebrows, charm, bewilderment and an infectious enthusiasm as others attempt to thwart her plans to give a Christmas treat to Talia who used to sit at her feet listening to stories. She has a great voice to deliver Garth McConaghie’s rich set of songs. The seriously officious science-loving Commissioner of the kingdom is played by Sean Kearns (not his first role as a commissioner this year). Aside from the apparatchik, watch out for Kearns bringing out a more playful side, dancing in a baby doll dress high above an utterly fabulous duckling just before the interval.

Nuala McGowan, Daniel Rivers, Katie Shortt and Jack Watson bring to life the remaining characters and also play instruments on stage (including a percussive coat stand that provides cartoonish special effects to accompany comedic moments of Adam Ashford’s choreography).

Three fairy tales are woven into Noelle’s quest to restore literary order. Stephen Beggs and Simon Magill retell them with gratifying speed and in a manner that anyone adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol could learn from. The final story delivers a show highlight with the appearance of the Three Little Pigs who sing the barbershop number Piggy Power – which must surely be the best song on stage this Christmas – alongside a wolfish official from council building control who doesn’t conform to lazy judgements about his character.

It’s good to see that a liberal dose of literary fairy dust has been sprinkled over Christmas shows in Belfast this year. The Night Before Christmas takes place on Diana Ennis’ two-level set faced with shelving stuffed full of books, hiding doors and other treasures. Lines from the script festoon some of her costumes.

Fergus Wachala-Kelly’s white-on-black animations are regularly projected across elements of the set, amplifying the narrative on top of McConaghie’s soundscape. Director Lisa May never allows the energy to drop and makes good use of the talented cast across the bookish set.

Adults will soon catch on to a smart, subversive, almost satirical, commentary about Brexit and government behaviour that is laced through the script and songs. While the venue pitches the show at five-year-olds and over, talk of being “bound together in gossamer strands”, Inchworm, and the tale of the Little Match Girl (which passed me by as a child and an adult) may fly over the head of younger audience members. It’s quite a loud show, with lots of music and words being pushed out towards the audience. But fear not: the run includes a handful of relaxed performances.

The Night Before Christmas makes a plea to face the uncertain future together. It’s a show that will put a smile on your face and keep it there. Performances continue in The MAC until Sunday 7 January.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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