The Last Noël is a play that feels cosy and comforting from the get go. Before the main event starts, viewers are offered a biscuit and asked to join in a rousing carol to set the mood. The atmosphere here is clear – welcome to a familiar and festive world for the next hour or so.
The story revolves (as you could argue most people’s Christmases do) around relatives gathering together over unnecessary amounts of food and drink. Our trio of characters make up three generations of the same family, each bringing their own quirks to the table. Alice (played with immense charm by Annie Wensak) is the effervescently kind matriarch – keeper of the feast, and the rules. She is joined by her son Mike (Dyfrig Morris), prone to jokes and light-hearted bickering, who is uncle to Tess (Anna Crichlow) – a returning uni student seeking to make her way in the world.
United by memories, merriment, and the anticipation of the holiday season, the three await the arrival of Tess’s parents, who are both busy healthcare workers, and tell stories to pass the time. While at first the script and its jokes (Chris Bush) are perhaps a bit reliant on hackneyed observations and generational clichés – grandma doesn’t understand Twitter, aren’t Stag Dos silly, etc. – the humour warms up as the play gets going and there are some genuinely funny moments. And it is clear that the humour and references are intended to be kept simple and universal, to be enjoyed by a variety of age groups.
Punctuating the action are a few musical flourishes performed by musical director Matt Winkworth on the keyboard. The actors sometimes perform full length songs (again written by Chris Bush) or snippets of Christmas favourites with adapted lyrics, all woven fairly seamlessly into the dialogue. While none of these stand out on their own, they wrap the whole performance in a joyful atmosphere. The setting is in the round and director Jonathan Humphreys and movement director Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster work well with this, making it reminiscent of the traditional storytelling methods of old, when people would have gathered around hearths. As each character puts their own spin on recognisable tales, they bring more emotional depth to the play than might at first have been expected.
For some it might be oversentimental – and the themes and the content can hardly be called radically original – but it is hard to rate a show badly when it oozes so much warmth. All in all, The Last Noël is a wholesome tale filled with festive spirit.
“simply not the standard which I associate with the Southwark and it left me very disappointed”
On a 90s boardwalk, Ella, a young confidence trickster, tries to play her way to a fortune only to come unstuck, in Judy Upton’s Confidence. Produced by Boundless Theatre and first performed in 1998, this is an exploration of frustrated youth and capitalist daydreams.
This is a good play. Although occasionally overly verbose, Upton’s script is witty, sharp and affectionate to its ensemble of losers. Many of the themes it touches on feel particularly pertinent today, comments on deluded ambition, consumerism and sexual politics that play into current concerns that are prevalent in the current social conscience. It is no wonder why Boundless felt it was ripe for a revival. There are clearly good intentions behind this production.
Sadly it falls apart in execution. Director Rob Drummer may have created the feel of the 90s, but he fails to connect us to his central characters. The set design (Amelia Jane Hankin), although impressive and immaculate in its attention to detail, swamps the space forcing the actors to the side lines. The blocking feels obvious and unnatural, further cutting the actors off from the audience. In all, while the period is realised, the world lacks the fun and energy needed to engage. There are pacing issues throughout, with too many dead air pauses that leave the room flat. It feels superficial, telling more than showing and at two hours it starts to drag.
In terms of the performances, Anna Crichlow’s Ruby shines. She is a gem bringing energy, commitment and joy every time she steps on stage, even if only to sweep the floor. Ruby’s triumphant final decree was met with well earned applause from the audience. Unfortunately, every one else appears to struggle. Rhys Yates as older brother Ben fares best, giving the character authority and vulnerability in the face of Ella’s schemes, while Will Pattle’s hapless Dean succeeds in providing moments of humour and pathos. Lace Akpojaro creates a strong sense of benign threat as owner Edwin. But there is a lack of emotional connection between the characters which they can’t overcome. In the central role of Ella, Tanya Burr certainly delivers the character’s grit and hardness, but not the charm and wit necessary to carry the piece and her delivery borders on monotonous.
This was simply not the standard which I associate with the Southwark and it left me very disappointed. It was frustrating that while such care had been taken in the detail of presenting this world, the heart of the story was strangely absent.