Miracle on 34th Street

Valentine Davies, adapted by Mary Elliot Nelson
Farnham Maltings
(2009)

Production photo

Miracle on 34th Street has quite some pedigree. The story was created by Valentine Davies with his novella being published to coincide with the release of the 1947 film that starred Maureen O'Hara and a young Natalie Wood. This much copied original won Academy Awards for both Davies and George Seaton who wrote the screenplay as well as a nomination for Best Motion Picture, and its place in American cinema history has been cemented by its selection to The National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

This heart-warming story has become loved by millions with seemingly every decade having its own version, whether for the musical theatre stage, film, radio or television. Mary Elliot Nelson's adaptation for Farnham Maltings touring company is a home-grown incarnation of this timeless story of love, belief and the true Christmas spirit, based on the book and borrowing lightly from the first film.

For those who for the last half century have somehow escaped knowing the plot or whose memory is too tied up with other things, the story involves Scrooge-like Doris Walker hiring Kris Kringle as a Santa for the toy department of Macy's famous New York store. Whilst Walker's approach is strictly commercial - "save me the sentimental nonsense", she declares - white-bearded and tubby Kringle takes the view that "it's the children that count at Christmas" and recommends that shoppers go to other stores to find the sought-after presents not stocked at Macy's, causing melt-down for department head Shellhammer for whom "it's all about sales".

This generosity of spirit becomes a contagion of reciprocal goodwill across the City but there are consequences for Kringle who is committed to an asylum for deludedly asserting he is Santa Claus. Attorney Fred Gailey, friend, neighbour and would-be love interest to divorcée Doris Walker, defends Kringle at the hearing, proves the existence of Santa, wins the case and wins the girl. It's the perfect Yuletide sentiment: "hope and joy and love" overcome cynicism and greed.

This adaptation has three Macy employees reminiscing about the Christmas when "it all suddenly went right", with each of them playing a handful of characters to act out the story in flashbacks. In the toy store setting the use of puppets to fill the children's roles is uncontrived and the timely addition of Kringle occurs as naturally as brandy butter melts into pudding. Such devices, often a necessity for a tour of this scale, can become a hindrance but Elliot Nelson's orderly structure makes the storytelling clear and director Gavin Stride keeps up a good pace.

The script is funny with dry witticisms for the adults - "There have been guys in the White House with worse delusions" - and a pie in the face, party poppers and participation for the children. This is first and foremost seasonal family entertainment but the underlying message of the piece comes through, its topicality intact, without preaching or mawkishness.

With selected period details designer Mary Drummond effectively evokes the post-war period of the original work and the touch of nostalgia adds to the production's charms, which include Mick Strobel's slightly bewildered Kringle. The other members of the cast give each of their characterisations recognisable features and nimbly juggle quick entrances and changes.

David Matthews is very appealing in his two principal roles as good natured window dresser Gene and the more debonair Fred who saves the day. When he plays both the attorney and the Doctor who he is cross-examining the courtroom scene, Matthews rises to the challenge to great comic effect, and on Sunday his comedic skills were further tested when required to improvise in character as a startled member of the audience snagged his entrance.

Rosie Armstrong flips effortlessly between the contrasting characters of engaging Rosie "princess of perfumery" with a New York drawl and haughty, precisely spoken Doris Walker. Caroline Partridge is memorable as Gerry from accounts and even more so as the Judge where she immediately created a winning rapport with the audience.

This is a show to warm you from the inside out.

"Miracle on 34th Street" tours the south-east until mid-January

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti