In some ways it’s an obvious choice to adapt Raymond Briggs’ beloved children’s picture book Father Christmas for the stage. After all, it’s widely known and thoroughly festive. Look more closely, though, and it presents a few problems. For one thing, there’s only one proper character in it, so who is he going to interact with and talk to? In fact, he doesn’t do a great deal of talking at all, just the odd grumbling aside. That, and the fact that he spends a lot of the book travelling across the entire world at great speed. How will that translate to the stage?
Thankfully we’re in safe hands with Pins & Needles who did a wonderful job of adapting Briggs’ The Bear which came to the Waterside last Christmas. There’s a similar blend of skill and ingenuity here, navigating around the aforementioned hurdles with élan. Essentially, Father Christmas spends lots of time chatting away to his dog, his cat and his reindeer, all of which are present in Briggs’ book, but their presence is ramped up for the show. The animals are all puppets, deftly operated by Richard Booth. When Santa’s just quietly getting on with it, a live soundtrack is provided by Katy Sobey on an elevated, fairy-light covered platform with everything ranging from incidental music to live effects – up to and including sizzling bacon, pouring water, the brushing of hair and a rumbling tummy.
The set is revealed to be a whole nest of hatches which help to realise a range of locations, even a chimney which is illuminated from within. The big man himself, played with grandfatherly charm by Mike Ahearne, is a little less cantankerous than in the original book but he’s not white-washed by any means, and purists will be satisfied by the proliferation of bloomin’ this and bloomin’ that.
The Waterside – voted Venue of the Year at this year’s Northern Soul Awards, dontchaknow – is developing a fine tradition for bijou Christmas shows which eschew the loud and in-your-face approach and instead deliver something gentle and magical. This show, wittily directed by Emma Earle, elicits lots of hearty laughs and a few mass gasps of wonder, too. If it has flaws, they’re only minor. The conceit of having a live soundtrack up aloft is smart and delightful, but there are moments when the audience isn’t entirely sure where they should be watching. Also, there’s lots of business with the pet puppets downstage which is rather low down for a generally short sort of audience, so it’s a cue for lots of regular shifting and craning.
In all though it’s a nifty treat, a supremely well-judged dollop of warmth and cosy fun boasting clear storytelling and a sleighful of little surprises. It stays faithful to the original book and, unlike the animated film version, doesn’t rope in the narrative of Briggs’ follow-up Father Christmas on Holiday. Instead it focuses directly on the big countdown to Christmas, which is exactly what youngsters are all about at this time of year anyway.
It’s another small but perfectly formed festive delight from the Waterside, then, and at this rate the annual announcement of its Christmas show is fast becoming a big, cherishable event for families hereabouts.
Father Christmas, Sale Waterside, until 31 December. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.