Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Sandi Toksvig's Christmas Cracker

Created by Sandi Toksvig and Jude Kelly
Royal Festival Hall
(2009)

Publicity photo

I've always liked the idea of crackers: a colourful decoration on the dining table that with an exciting bang produces a colourful crown to brighten every face, a jolly joke or witty motto and a special little toy, game or extra present. All too often, though, they turn out to have lost their bang or go off with a disappointing little snap to produce a tatty pastel tissue paper hat and a bit of plastic pretending to be a lucky charm.

This show is billed as a 'Christmas cabaret,' which suggests something rather more intimate and sophisticated than what you get. It is not easy to be intimate in the wide spaces of the Festival Hall, though Sandi Toksvig does her very best, but the material is closer to panto in its style than night-club sophistication. There is a series of acts, like a variety bill, hosted and linked by Toksvig. With too few opportunities to see variety acts today, either on stage or on television (and towards the end of its run this show will be telecast by Sky) that is very welcome. Toksvig handles things as though it is a family Christmas party with the audience becoming part of the show. Family Christmases aren't always fun: some can be disastrous!

Your enjoyment of this Christmas Cracker will very much depend on whether you are judging it as a piece of theatrical performance or going with friends to have a good time anyway because some of it is very much like watching your auntie and the kids each doing their turn and you need to be very indulgent and love it when people muddle through.

Each night of the run there will be a pair of different guests (they range from Fiona Shaw to Lionel Blair, John Humphreys to Miriam Margolyes) and a guest choir (including Diversity and the Gay Men's Chorus) but much of the show it seems will be the same with some acrobatic clowning from Petra Massey and Toby Park, magic tricks from Peter Firman, the singing and dancing of Five Guys Named Moe (Delroy Atkinson, Paul Hazel, AJ Lewis, Leon Maurice Jones and Marvin Spinner) a trio of male opera singers (Mark Lanahan, Peter Snipp and Aneirin Hughes), conductor Charles Hazlewood (though narrating not conducting) and the guest artists joining the resident team for a tongue-in-cheek attempt to present Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. There is also an internal drama going on in a romance between Miss Toksvig's miming mute assistant and a fairy who steals the magician's box of bad spells and turns into a monster. It is a mixed bag that seems to give only little of any particular act and yet goes on too long because it is all so much of a muddle despite the fact that Miss Toksvig is very much in charge.

I saw it with that singer Maria Friedman as a guest and it seemed a waste to restrict her talent to a couple of banal Christmas songs, and Firman seemed to do only two tricks, one very extended. Petra Massey became a very monstrous fairy but the material was very weak and guiding a guest around to stage to read the role of Scrooge (Nicholas Parsons on my night) just didn't have the sparkle that it needed.

Morecambe and Wise used to do this kind of awful acting to great effect on television and perhaps on television this will be more effective. Indeed the set already looks as though it has been designed for a TV studio and some of the performances, especially ad-lib asides, seemed geared for television, not this large venue.

We British apparently like amateurishness, and a great part of the audience, drinks in hand, seemed to love it, but this wasn't an hilarious shambles - it just fell flat, saved only by some well rehearsed songs and dances. Coming well into a long evening Christmas Carol needed much more energy and invention and to follow it with Ronnie Corbett (who plays Dickens's Christmas Ghosts as though he has no idea what he is doing) giving one of his typical monologue chats as the last act on the bill did him no service when you needed something vigorous that would lift the mood rather than his gentle humour - though again this will work much better on the box.

Sandi Toksvig, resplendent in a range of scarlet, black and sequin encrusted suits is at her best conducting a quiz with the entire audience as competitors giving yes/no answers to a series of wide ranging facts. Everyone stood with hands on heads (yes) or clutching buttocks (no) making their answers clear to all, sitting down when they were wrong until elimination left a winner. Conducting party games on that scale is quite an achievement and the atmosphere created helped carry the rest of the first half.

For me this show was too like some of those real crackers: it promises more than it delivers. I would have preferred to see a lot more of the acts without the wrappings which took up so much of the evening to little purpose. I must confess I have never been especially keen on paper hats but much of the audience was definitely wearing imaginary ones and seemed to be having a great time.

Until 24th December 2009. Guests for each performance are now named on the South Bank Centre website.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton