Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Michael Rose and U-Live in asociation with Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth
Based on the 2003 film written by David Berenbaum but with a new score and songs that don’t include those in the movie, I can’t say I was looking forward to this. Smaltzy US celebrations of commercial Christmas aren’t what I want from Santa, but I was pleasantly surprised.
It is still a celebration of a Christmas Spirit which is all about presents and Christmas trees, glitter and baubles. There’s no mention of religious celebration, though this production seems to flaunt its artificial ethos in a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential way. Morgan Young’s direction pushes it forward with a pace that matches his lively choreography—there’s no time to get sickly sentimental.
The premise is that lack of belief in Santa Claus is threatening his survival. It doesn’t put the audience in the equivalent of that awful saving Tinkerbell situation, but if you accept the make-believe you could see this as simplistic social satire.
Buddy, the Elf of the title, isn’t actually an elf at all: he’s human. As the illegitimate offspring of a student union, as a baby he crawled accidentally into the sack of visiting Santa and crawled out at the North Pole. Brought up by elves, he’s thirty now, towering above them, and Santa sends him back to find his father who has no idea he was born.
Dad is a work-obsessed children’s publishing executive with an office in the Empire State Building. He doesn’t want to know, but Buddy meets his wife and little boy and wins them over. Meanwhile, he’s also found himself working in Santa’s grotto in Macy’s, horrified to discover a stranger masquerading as Santa, and fallen for one of the shop assistants and wants to make her Christmas wish come true.
The whole show has been lavishly mounted with designs by Tim Goodchild that incorporate Ian William Galloway’s video and some complex technology, especially for Santa’s sleigh, all cunningly lit by Tim Lutkin. There is lively dancing, good singing and a score that is full of songs that feel familiar, although they are new ones: a clever knack for making people like them and creating a warm feeling in the audience.
What could be just a bland fable with little real characterisation is brought to life by the performers led by Ben Forster’s naïve and burping Buddy—he knows exactly how to sell his character to the audience without over doing it. He’s almost always on stage, except when a puppet replaces him in the distance, delivering enough energy to fuel the whole show.
Jennie Dale is not far behind as Deb, one of his dad’s employees, and the whole ensemble. Joe McGann as dad gives another strong performance, his long sour face eventually turning pleasantly parental. Jessica Martin is spirited stepmother Emily and young Ilan Galkoff a confidently accomplished half-brother (a role he shares with three other young lads).
Kimberley Walsh makes less of a mark as love interest Jovie but she’s given less opportunity to do so, while Mark McKerracher’s Santa frames things as the storyteller as well as being in the action.
It is a very family-friendly show but with a seat in the stalls costing as much as £160 tomorrow (cheapest seats £30) it's an expensive outing. At some performances, premium seats are priced 50% higher but you can save on the £10 programme by getting the same information online.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton