The Christmas opening at the Olivier; it’s like the first mince pie of the season, warm, comforting and loaded with anticipation.
This year the National Theatre breaks from the recent tradition of family fare, offering instead a festive farce. Even the show’s opening image resembles a striking Christmas wreath cut from card and fringed with a London skyline, though that and a subtle Christmas tree are the only nods made to the season.
The papery periphery is a catchy motif running through Katrine Lindsay’s striking design that sets its cardboard world slightly off kilter; a touch of Wonderland here, a Dr Seuss-esque flourish there.
It’s the perfect setting for the fantastical reality of AW Pinero’s farce in which Agatha Posket’s little white lie about her age is the source of much panic, consternation, hiding in corners, ghasting of flabbers and illicit after hours meeting at disreputable hotels.
Her age augmentation, in an attempt to secure her new husband, resulted in her 19-year-old son thinking he was half a decade younger, which explains, to an extent, his sophisticated tastes and barely controlled libido, less so his lack of facial fuzz and how a man so adept at plotting is able to forget five years of his life. Still, there’s a reason the setting is not weighed down by reality.
If at times the production doesn’t have quite as much zing as a crisp winter night, all is forgiven when Olivier Award winner Nancy Carroll charms the auditorium with a withering look, a drop of an eyebrow and an ‘Oh Lord’, or when Tony Award winner John Lithgow single-handedly holds the Olivier stage, blustering, hopping, stumbling and fumbling his way through memories of a previous night’s escape from the scrape he had been led into by Joshua McGuire’s annoyingly charismatic devil in a Victorian boy’s clothing, Cis.
Director Timothy Sheader is making his National Theatre debut with the production. We’d been expecting to see him bring The Count Of Monte Cristo to the stage this winter, but that project was shelved earlier in the year.
The Artistic Director of the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre has never been afraid of big, bold settings, so no-one should be surprised to see that he’s sprinkled festive fairy dust here too, adding a smattering of scene change-covering songs performed by an intriguing chorus of monochrome, magnified Oompa Loompas. With witty lyrics from Richard Stilgoe that bring a modern inflection to the Victorian setting, and music by Richard Sisson that conjures the best mix of Mary Poppins and Gilbert and Sullivan, it is the extra magic that takes a fun farce with serious points about equality at its heart, and makes it that joyful Christmas treat that will have audiences leaving the South Bank entertained, grinning and giving a little more thought to the next fib they are tempted to tell.