Claus the Musical
L Frank Baum, adapted by Simon Warne, music and lyrics by Andy Collyer
Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment, Jason-Leigh Ellery and Moment Makers
The Lowry, Salford
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Claus the Musical is not a conventional Christmas potboiler. It does not presume the young target audience has a limited attention span and depends more upon imagination than slick special effects to tell the story.
L Frank Baum’s best-known story—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—successfully shifted the fairy tale formula from Europe to the American Heartland. Claus the Musical, based upon his story, is, however, set firmly in fantasy neverland—the enchanted Forest of Burzee which borders the mortal universe. The forest is populated by two conflicting immortal tribes, one which enjoys tempting mortals into mischief, while the other is more benevolent if in a vague manner.
Simon Warne’s book and the lyrics of Andy Collyer suggest immortality may not be all it is cracked up to be—"Every day is the same" sing the benevolent deities. This may explain why wood nymph Necile (Georgie Buckland) decides to adopt a mortal baby abandoned in the forest. She names the baby Claus (Harry Winchester) and as he grows, the child becomes restless and determined to explore the land beyond the forest, which inevitably brings him into contact with the tribe’s enemies and the problems faced by humans. Claus becomes aware, by comparison with the immortals, his lifespan is limited and, determined to make his time worthwhile, sets out to help mortal children by making toys. Thus beginning the legend of Santa Claus.
If the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taught audiences anything, it is not that great power brings great responsibility, but origin stories can bog down in detail. This is an issue with Claus the Musical; adaptor Simon Warne takes a respectful approach to the source material so an opening speech by the narrator becomes a blur, setting out the odd names of the various species (Fairies, Knooks and Ryls) and specifying their roles. Explaining the origins of the elements of the Santa myth (entering through chimneys, putting toys in stockings and so on) as well as setting out a storyline involving the baddies kidnapping Claus to frustrate his efforts makes for a crowded script.
It is also strikingly solemn; director Kate Golledge works contrary to the usual festive formula and gives few opportunities for the audience to take part. Jazz Evans as the sneering villain Awgwa seems to be begging the audience to catcall, but everyone is too intimidated by the respectful mood to boo or hiss.
This is surprising as, before the show starts, the cast bust a gut to create a goofy, fun mood. As the theatre fills, the cast are wandering about inviting children to help braid the lion’s tail, spreading out bedsheets on the balcony, running a line of washing through the audience or throwing laundry down from the balcony. It promises an anarchic, fun show that never materialises—as if a teacher has entered the room and told the audience to be quiet and pay attention.
Claus the Musical is full of contradictions. Stewart J Charlesworth’s stunning set fills the stage not just in depth but height, stretching to the back of the stage and to the top. Although conveying a dark forest in shades of green and massive cobwebs, there is a sense of decay with parts of the set looking almost rusty. Set against an alien purple sky, it creates an oppressive, ominous mood which is undercut every so often by a nicely silly ‘whoops-a-daisy’ sound effect.
The congested storyline may demand a respectful approach, but the enthusiasm of the cast is so gleeful, at times it seems they might be improvising. This is a back-to-basics production—rather than video images, silhouettes are projected onto a rough screen, a cat puppet is made from a hankie and a strip of rope and the villains casting a spell is illustrated by them wrapping shreds of cloth around their victims. More significantly, however, a tremendously hard-working cast slip from indifferent immortals to wide-eyed or surly children without missing a beat.
After an over-full first act, the second is more relaxed allowing for some genuine surprises in the revelation of Claus’s parentage and the identity of the narrator.
The sheer ambition of Claus the Musical limits its success, but it remains an unusual festive entertainment and it is doubtful there is a harder-working cast around this season.
Reviewer: David Cunningham