The More the Merrier
by Hans Christian Anderson
adapted by Tatty Hennessy
directed by Scott Ellis &
by Simon Stephens
directed by Sarah Chapleo
As with newborn babies, so with theatres. You know they’re being brought into a cruel and crowded world of suffering and hardship – yet you can’t help but rejoice when a new one pops out.
Theatre N16 is a traditional bare-bones pub theatre of decent size. It’s a grander affair, however, than your usual rickety steps up to a mouldering attic. A staircase sweeps through the gigantic Bedford, past a ballroom thrumming to the sound of salsa. It’s warm and inviting and pleasingly busy. Tonight, N16’s yuletide offering is a double-bill of childlike wonder and adult despair, of the magical and the mundane.
First up is The Snow Queen, Hans Christian Anderson’s timeless tale, adapted with sparkle by Tatty Hennessy (co-directing here with Scott Ellis). Christmas Eve in the family attic, and Greta is being terrorized by her cruel brother Kay. But this Kay, she soon discovers, is an imposter – her real brother has been kidnapped by the eponymous Snow Queen. A cheeky-chappy crow (bewitchingly brought to life by James Tobin) leads Greta on an imagination-fuelled ride to rescue Kay from the Snow Queen’s palace, just in time for Christmas. It’s a charming production that embraces the simple yet clever design, countless sheeted boxes and their curious contents. From these the cast conjures up witchy old crones, money-grubbing showmen and a brilliant dancing bear from little more than a lampshade and rake (all played with superb verve by chameleonic Narrator, Jessica Strawson). Low-fi the production may be, but its puppetry and silhouette-work and general gusto is a delight. The text really twinkles (“as if the stars were having a disco”), decked with relentlessly hilarious bird puns (“Help me with this box,” “I’m a crow, not a crane!”). Kids and grown-ups alike are reduced to giggles at the irresistible silliness of it all. And yet at the heart of the piece is a simple but powerful allegory about a shattered magic mirror: it’s when we feel like we can only see the bad (hello, 2016) that we most need to look for the good. Extra kudos to box office for holding off curtains-up for the arrival of a group of children – totally worth the short wait to see their faces light up at this lovely performance.
For every perfect gift beneath the tree there’s usually a pair of socks, and you’ll probably want to keep the receipt for Simon Stephens’ Christmas, directed by Sarah Chapleo. The set is ideal enough, bar stripped back and tinselled up to create a cheerfully cheerless atmosphere. But the choice of play is poor – one of Stephens’ early works, and it feels it. A week before Christmas, and Michael’s pub is snowed under with nothing but bills. As his regulars straggle in, they all struggle with the onset of the loneliest holiday. There are strong performances in Jack Bence’s dogged Billy and Christopher Sherwood’s enigmatic Charlie, but even their spark can’t keep the production from sputtering out. Each character’s story is sluggishly explored, while eventual exits are drawn-out long enough to have both David Mamet and Santa tugging at their whiskers. Snappier direction would have helped, but it’s the play itself that’s the turkey here. A real pity to see that, while even the West End is embracing all-female Shakespeare, a new and exciting fringe theatre somehow goes for five white men chatting in a pub. It’s testostero-centric and yet somehow impotent. You can’t help but feel you would have been more enriched by eavesdropping at the bar downstairs for two hours instead.
Nevertheless, a new year beckons. Here’s hoping the N16 has a happier season after this mixed stocking. And very best of luck to them with it.
photos | ©Andreas Bambis