Alexandra Palace Theatre
Reviewed – 13th December 2018
“wonderfully witty, packed with mischievous gags that appeal right across the generations”
Built in 1873 as an answer to South London’s Crystal Palace, Alexandra Palace burnt to the ground just sixteen days after its opening. Two years later it was reconstructed as a kind of pleasure dome, with palm court, circus, concert hall with its own park land and railway station. Hidden at its heart was the spectacular theatre, that rivalled many in the West End with its size and ambition. Welcoming stars like Dame Ellen Terry, Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.
A home for opera, dance, ballet, music hall, theatre and pantomime it entertained thousands in its heyday but eventually struggled to compete and, for eighty years, has been closed to the public, a hidden gem perched high above the city. Until now. Following a multi-million-pound refurbishment, the abandoned theatre is unveiled in all its former glory. The auditorium, resembling a forgotten and crumbling Roman temple, is vast but feels intimate at the same time. Reflecting its former use, the programming embraces a variety of stand-up comedy, classical recitals, jazz music; but the first big stage show is “Horrible Histories: Horrible Christmas”.
Birmingham Stage Company has been bringing Horrible Histories to life on the stage for ten horrible years now, and this latest version, in association with Derby Theatre, retains the anarchic mayhem that has become their trademark, while still managing to impart a little bit of knowledge onto its young and older, though not necessarily wiser, audience.
When Christmas comes under threat from a vengeful Santa imposter out to ruin Christmas, it is up to one young boy to save the day. A tight-knit troupe of eight actors take us on a whirlwind trip through Christmases past and present. Watson, the intrepid young hero, played with wide-eyed gusto by Tom Cawte, joins forces with ‘Shirley’ Holmes (Erika Poole) in a race to save Christmas. Speeding back through the centuries on Holmes’ time-travelling scooter, they join forces with Charles Dickens, King Charles, Henry VIII, St Nicholas (the bishop of Myra, in Turkey) and Oliver Cromwell, among others. Completely absurd yet informative, it perfectly mixes humour into its incisive, laconic low-down on the background of Christmas Day.
Terry Deary’s script (adapted from his own original publications) is wonderfully witty, packed with mischievous gags that appeal right across the generations. Never patronising, nor descending into superfluous slapstick, it satisfies the senses of the kids in all of us. Ally Pally’s auditorium is quite cavernous, but the talented multi-rolling cast create a warm glow that easily reaches the upper balconies.
Chris Gunter as Sydney Clause, the Grinch-like antagonist, and Ashley Bowden as his shambling side-kick, Rudolph, are a cracking comedy duo. Gunter’s sinister caricature of the ‘Bad Santa’ has shades of Tim Burton, with as many dimensions too; so that ultimately his performance transcends mere ‘panto’ and, like the show itself, is ultimately quite moving. In the meantime, Neal Foster, leads us through the Yuletide backstory shifting with ease between many characters with impressive versatility.
By giving us a potted history of Christmas the cast dig to the core of what Christmas should really be about. This horribly hilarious show is a real celebration of Christmas.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Ian Tilton
Alexandra Palace Theatre until 30th December