A Yuletide Droll
Old Red Lion
From 28 November 2017 to 02 December 2017
Review by Howard Loxton
If you want to get into the spirit of Christmas, a real old English Christmas, this is just the thing.
This isn’t the Christmas of Santa Claus bringing presents in his sleigh that American magazines took up as an idea in the 1820s and Coca Cola advertising gave its modern image in the 1930s, not the European versions of St Nicholas. This is Old Father Christmas, the representative of cheer and charity that was our tradition, the Father Christmas that the puritans banned in 1644.
Brice Stratford and his Owle Schreame companions have put together an uproarious programme of Christmas mummer plays linked by director Stratford with a little information about them. It’s presented with great spontaneity in a style that is traditional and, like their predecessors visiting homes and hostelries, they burst in from the street demanding a welcome and perform the first of their plays.
It begins with St George battling a foreign knight through the bar before he’s killed, then brought back to life by a doctor who then passes the hat round before leading the audience up to the theatre for the rest of the show.
It's made up of a selection of plays from all over the country that show how similar they all were in format and story, at the same time pointing out how they differ from region to region. Although here they are using texts collected and written down in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mummers plays come from an oral tradition that goes back at least to the thirteenth century and probably much further.
They were played not by professional actors, like this energetic crew, but amateurs, poor men who had a tough time in winter, workers and farm labourers who struggled to support their families and could offer something that wasn’t illegal begging but always ended with asking for money in appreciation, money that would help workers' families survive the dark days of winter.
Some two or three hundred Yuletide mummers’ plays survive, passed down from the middle ages to the early twentieth century. World War One interrupted the tradition, disruption and loss of the young men meant it wasn’t passed on but there have been more recent revivals.
There is always a warrior of some kind. Saint George, defeater of dragons, though they are rarely part of the action. Sometimes he becomes King George, sometimes, in Gloucestershire especially, he is Robin Hood. He is often in combat with a knight from Turkey (a link to the crusades there perhaps) and there is always a doctor with his pills and elixirs to restore life.
Old Father Christmas himself is a regular character, though he is sometimes replaced by a comic Beelzebub. Sometimes the Doctor has an assistant or is replaced by a character called Tom Pinney or Jack Finney; sometimes this is the name of a clown character, a Tom Fool who replaces Father Christmas and Beelzebub.
With an audience warmed up by joining in a Christmas song and becoming vocal, helped perhaps by a libation offered to all by the company, there is great interaction, which leads to some impromptu improvisation. The result is general jollity. Merry Christmas indeed!
Brice Stratford establishes an immediate rapport with the audience before going on to play Old Father Christmas, Beelzebub and other roles and Tom Moores starts off as St George battling with a stave standing in for a sword. Duncan Hendry plays the threatening foreigners and James Carney the ubiquitous Doctor who makes most of his entrances tumbling in head over heels from the back row of the audience.
Women were traditionally played by men but Holly Morgan and Laura Romer-Ormiston take these roles—and several male ones too, such as the Turk in the first play in the pub bar and the King of Egypt whose daughter becomes St George’s bride.
It is a cast that make watching their plays into a party. I don’t think I have seen an audience and actors so relaxed with each other since the Mystery Plays in the Cottesloe thirty years ago and both thoroughly enjoying themselves. Treat yourself!