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.
“A feast of high-blown cod grandiloquence is delivered with crisp authority”
“Love. Zounds!” Newbury’s delightfully cosy Watermill Theatre has a sparkling hit on its hands in an adaptation of Sheridan’s The Rivals. First performed in 1775, and written in a desperate rush to finance a life lived beyond his means, the play satirises the lives of the well-to-do in the hotbed of intrigue that was Georgian Bath.
The twisting path to true love, with all its deceptions and vanities, is brought to life with real zest by a strong ensemble, directed by Jonathan Humphreys. The piece has been shortened and sharpened by its adaptor Beth Flintoff, complete with a re-written prologue and epilogue. The first compares the hot stories of today with Sheridan’s time, and the second keeps the focus on the women and the way love really does make the world go round.
James Cotterrill’s design features a period-looking thrust stage and a ravishing cascade of high kitsch drapes, in a riot of pink and purple frills and furbelows that neatly parodies the pretensions of the characters on the otherwise empty stage. This is a play of words, not deeds. A feast of high-blown cod grandiloquence is delivered with crisp authority by a talented cast.
Some of the best lines are spoken by the eponymous Mrs Malaprop, played with a wicked sense of fun by Julia St John. Her niece is memorably ‘as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’. The malapropisms are sometimes new (I don’t think Sheridan knew about the calamari which Mrs Malaprop substitutes for a calamity) and they come so thick and fast you’ve hardly time to work out what she really meant to say before another rib-tickler comes along.
Michael Thomas plays Sir Anthony Absolute with a delightfully pugnacious swagger. Ncuti Gatwa is his son Captain Jack, the focus of a web of love complications that had the audience in stitches. His delivery, animated expression and movement (directed by Simon Pittman) wittily evoked the character of the silver-tongued dandy at the centre of the play.
His love is Lydia Languish (recent RADA graduate Emma Denly). She’s far from being a complete air-headed flibbertigibbet, in an interpretation that like Charlotte Bate’s satisfying portrayal of Julia that was as much about empowering the women as it was about reducing them to mere figures of fun.
As Faulkland, James Mack gave an engaging performance as a daft buffoon whose love always comes with a ‘but..’. Christopher Logan has some great comic moments in best stage Irish as Sir Lucius O’Trigger in a role that got Dublin-born Sheridan into trouble at the play’s premiere.
Daniel Abelson completes the versatile cast of eight as Bob Acres. He plays the role in a lusciously broad Bristollian accent that perfectly suits his booby of a character. Other characters are also played with versatility by the cast, so much so in fact that there seemed to be actors missing at the enthusiastic curtain call that concluded tonight’s performance.