“Steven Houghton and Paul Robinson as Bob and Phil capture the essential bromance shared by their characters. Their banter is spontaneous and like any good couple, they are fun to be around.”
My companion finds me in Captain’s on South College Street. The outside world can bustle about all it wants in the brisk mid-winter air, in here is a cocoon of tranquillity. Looking up I see that someone has managed to deposit a Christmas-themed fruit machine on the stool next to mine. It has several strips of flashing LEDs whizzing around a scene depicting reindeer having a snowball fight while a large man, dressed in red, taps an impatient foot beside a huge roasted bird. “They can’t be making fruit machines out of wool,” I think, and they aren’t. It’s my companion fishing for a compliment on her Christmas jumper and red santa hat. I’m starting to understand just how excited she is about seeing Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical round the corner at the Festival Theatre. Secretly, I am too.
We enter the dress circle to the harmoniously discordant sound of the orchestra warming up. It brings on a tingle of anticipation, like the smell of like gently mulling cider. Their conductor is rising star, Andrew Corcoran. In the decade since he graduated, Corcoran has been involved with many of the best loved shows in the West End and beyond. Corcoran and his big band knock out the auld favourites at just the right tempo to hold things together while things move along swiftly. It’s going to matter that the music is kept pacey in this production.
Since leaving the US Army, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have made it big. When the song and dance team are not delighting audiences of The Ed Sullivan Show, they are double dating two sisters in the same line. When a planned winter wonderland-style spectacular in Vermont is put on ice for want of snow, the duo determine to save the day for the sake of their former commanding general whose inn is imperilled by the lack of paying punters.
Steven Houghton and Paul Robinson as Bob and Phil capture the essential bromance shared by their characters. Their banter is spontaneous and like any good couple, they are fun to be around. Graham Cole, as General Waverly, is billed as one of the recognisable men in uniform on UK TV from his 25 years as PC Tony Stamp on The Bill. Cole was a particular favourite of my Aunty Elsie and I would have loved to have told her just how great he was.
Cole delivers a brilliantly rounded, emotive performance. He has a balancing act to perform, eliciting sympathy for a chap down on his luck whilst never letting us forget that his character once stood at the head of hundreds of fighting men. For the plot to make sense, the audience must comprehend the depth of Bob and Phil’s hero-worship for their former commander and why they are going at to such lengths to help him out. Cole’s appearance in the prologue, so much like George C. Scott at the start of Paton, made me want to see him slap one of the lads for cowardice in the face of the orchestra or fire a pair of pearl handled pistols into a low flying chorus line – Wendi Peters as the laconic Martha Watson might have been game.
Cole heads a lively company delivering a high standard of character work, Phil Cole as Ezekiel all but stole the show. Producers need to find a vehicle for Cole and Peters, the script gave only a taste of what they can achieve together. They are supported by a clever, downright witty, set design courtesy of the Tony-nominated Anna Louizos. The train scene is compact but expansive. The barn is expansive but intimate. The dressing rooms are just plain compact.
The problem was that the scenery had been fitted badly onto the large Festival Theatre stage. We were looking down into a lot of unused blank space. The stage floor was even more drably coloured than the dull orange pastells of the auditorium. The theatre’s interior, beyond the smashing glass front, has a rather calvinist approach to opulence. The impression is similar to that achieved in the better sort of Tex Mex outlet. When the men appeared in desperately dull suits of forest and olives greens I wondered if they would take an order for seafood enchiladas.
If the Santa on my companion’s jumper was ever minded to rename his team of reindeer after the essential elements of music theatre, he’d call them dance, music, set design, acting and script. The last of these would be the one in front with the red nose guiding the rest.
White Christmas is a fluffy, jolly script – a very funny script – but one which touches on deeper themes and meanings. It’s about America’s greatest generation growing old. Michael Curtiz was no less able to film a script capturing contemporary concerns in the 1954 movie than he had done with Everyone Goes to Rick’s twelve years earlier. In this production of White Christmas, the script’s tradgi-comic insight has been lost along the way.
Strong performances carried this production a long way but it still had far to go in fully releasing the magic from a script set at the most wonderful time of the year.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 17 December)
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