Chickenshed Theatre, Southgate, London, UK; January 11, 2014
Every year Chickenshed, one of the UK’s most significant inclusive theatre companies, stages a mighty Christmas show. This year’s had over 100 children working alongside youth and adult performers in every performance, and four separate casts for the children so that roles are rotated. Golly gosh! The shows always look good and are performed to a high standard, but this year’s presentation, “The Night Before Christmas”, was one of the best in recent years, the various elements of the show all working well and combining into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
The story is of a family of selfish and materialistic children waiting up for Father Christmas – or rather for their presents. But the big FC misdelivers three presents, which puts all future Christmases in jeopardy. So, with two reindeer – a fine double act by great movers, Robin Shillingworth and Billy Ashworth – pulling the living room couch, the family set off to correct the present errors. It’s a journey that takes them to Pantoland; Dickensland, with Scrooge and the Cratchits; and Snowland, with the wicked Snow Queen. The tale is an effective vehicle to bring together a range of Christmas and social themes.
Pantoland is organised by the two Ugly Sisters, Joseph Morton and Michael Offei, who have suitably larger than life fun as they tick off the names for a passenger train delivering artistes to their panto gigs. There are some good jokes about roles usurped by big TV names and a very bored Buttons, yearning for a true test of his theatrical skills. Dickensland illustrates the great divide between the haves and the have nots, with a beautiful song praising the supremacy of love over wealth. Daniel Banton brought vitality to the meanness and eventual redemption of Scrooge. In Snowland, the beautiful but scary Snow Queen is brought to life by Belinda McGuirk, and who the family help to regain her heart. In the final scenes back home all is well and some lessons about giving and love have been learned.
The choreography by Christine Niering brings some striking ensemble movement as well as creating order and a strong sense of space for the large scale scenes with the children. The varied designs by Graham Hollick would put most West End shows to shame and the music by Dave Carey, Paul Morrall and Paula Rees has many fine tunes admirably played by the house band. Louise Perry directed with Morrell and Mary Ward, one of the founders. They must all be delighted that Chickenshed’s 40th anniversary celebrations have got off to such a strong start.