Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 20 December 2020 (Streamed live, then on demand until 6 January 2021)
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
The final four stories in the Lyceum Christmas Tales, presented live from the theatre, put the seal on what has been an enterprise suffused with goodwill, invention, care and Christmas cheer.
An undeniably wintry melancholy runs through this particular selection; while there is nothing that will scare young watchers, there is a necessarily high level of reflection.
Ryan Hunter’s cheerily comic performance in The Christmas Ghost by Louise Ironside can never quite disguise the sadness that lurks in here; we are reminded that 2020 is by no means the first Christmas that has seen Edinburgh in the grip of a pandemic.
Like the best festive entertainment, this encourages gentle rumination on mortality and remembrance while still providing a large dollop of hope; if all but the youngest viewers will be able to predict exactly where the story is going, it is none the worse for being so familiar.
Jackie Kay’s Christmas with Angela Davis is a more personal reminiscence, yet one sprinkled with fairy dust and with the widest possible resonance. The story of a girl whose wish for a more sparkly Christmas is at odds with her family’s insistence on building only ‘snow comrades’ is crystallised in the appearance of Davis and Nelson Mandela as Santa substitutes.
Performed with brio (and much more nuance than adult performers normally achieve when playing a child) by Helen Katamba, this is a poetic, endlessly inventive tale that links this year to events of the past with real skill. Wearing its intelligence lightly, it is charming and accessible but with real bite.
The Returning of the Light by Lynda Radley harks back to the pagan antecedents of Christmas with its tale of Sorcha, a girl attempting to find why the days are not lengthening as they should after the winter solstice.
Stories in such a setting often come over as a comic-book mishmash of history and myth, powered by a frightening jumble of archaisms. This seems more real, due as much to the magnetic energy of Kirsty Findlay’s performance as to a script which largely eschews cliché, sprinkling Celtic mythology into a thoroughly accessible adventure.
If there is a danger that it is all getting a little dark and reflective, this is blown away by the final offering, Shona Reppe’s A Cold Snap. This chimes with the themes and storyline of Morna Young’s story in the first of the recorded stories, providing elegant bookends to the whole enterprise, but while Young’s story is glacially reflective, this is humorously expansive.
Devotees of Reppe’s work will be delighted to know that household objects made-strange feature in the delightful story of a woman who has fallen out of love with Christmas. Irene Allen brings glorious comic invention to the role.
Kirsty Findlay in The Returning of the Light by Lynda Radley. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Like all of the stories, this benefits from note-perfect direction from Zinnie Harris and Wils Wilson. The performances are pitched just right, with none of the over-emphatic or patronising notes that can afflict even the best-intentioned productions aimed at a family audience.
Director of photography Anna Chaney ensures that this comes across perfectly to the watching audience – which certainly cannot have been easy. It almost goes without saying that Tom Piper’s design, Kate Bonney and Simon Wilkinson’s lighting, and Oguz Kaplangi and MJ McCarthy’s music (performed live by Kaplangi) are once again exemplary.
Harris has curated an admirable series of stories here. It may have been born out of necessity, but the whole enterprise has taken on a beauty and importance of its own. It is remarkable that not one of the twelve stories even approaches a duff note. These four tales may all revisit the familiar festive tropes of reflection, mystic intervention and redemption, but do it in a varied and inventive way that never fails to impress.
By the time the long-awaited, and appropriately distanced, musical finale comes round, you will surely be feeling decidedly Christmassy. And in 2020, that is fairly extraordinary in itself.
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum online
Streamed live from the Lyceum
Wednesday 16 – Saturday 20 December.
Wed-Sat: 7pm; Sun: 2pm.
Tickets and details: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/lyceum-christmas-tales
A recording will then be available to watch on demand until Tuesday 5 January 2021.
Irene Allan in A Cold Snap by Shona Reppe. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic