This is another Christmas gem from the people who made the best Peter Pan I have ever seen. It’s all about Eve who, on the cusp of her eighth birthday – on Christmas Eve of course – discovers two worrying things. Her adoptive parents appear to be wondering if they will keep her, and Christmas is in trouble and she is the only one who can save it.
Eve, played by Natasha Davidson with great charm and cleverness, manages to suppress her worry about her family until the real work of saving Christmas is done. News of her task is brought by Brian the very tall Elf, in great distress. None of the children’s wish letters to Santa have arrived, so the Elves can’t make the presents, so Santa will have nothing to deliver, so…oh, it doesn’t bear thinking about. But Brian is absolutely certain that Eve can find them. Brian, played by Jabez Sykes is hilarious, and ever so slightly camp, and we just love him.
Not so Mrs Grimble the post mistress, a baddie out of a Ghibli cartoon, played nastily by Laura England, who redeems herself as Eve’s lovely Mum. Eve is helped on her adventure by her best friend Nisha played by Purvi Parmar, and her dog Digby, also Parmar, doing the kind of puppetry that is so good you don’t notice it. Along the way they visit the eccentric Nula Nu who specialises in finding lost things, portrayed by Madeleine Edmondson, who also narrates. And everybody sings, in five-part harmony, quite a lot and really well.
This is an Oldham Theatre Workshop production. Despite tiny budgets and therefore small casts – Craig Revel Horwood’s frocks for Snow White at Mamchester Opera House probably cost more than this entire production – it’s the sheer professionalism of the storytelling that shines through. Writer Sarah Nelson knows exactly how to craft a show for youngsters with lots of jeopardy and a lovely Christmassy ending. The audience of 5 to 75-year-olds were rapt. No spoilers, but if you’re at all susceptible then you’d better take a hanky.
Composer and director James Atherton, who plays piano throughout the show, can write a Sondheim style lyric that children actually listen to. He also wrote the score for Around The World in Eighty Days which started at the Royal Exchange and went to Broadway earlier this year.
The cast, all Theatre Workshop alumni except England, are equally accomplished. Davidson won a Manchester Theatre Award for Best Supporting Actress. Sykes was a featured soloist at the What’s On Stage Awards in London, and Edmondson is a regular in ITV’s Cold Feet.
The set, which is perfect, is clearly constructed of stuff they had in the store. I know they were worried this year because they were actually going to have to buy some costumes. But in this Dickensian world of cuts and cutbacks, there are still some small miracles, and Oldham Theatre Workshop is one of them. It’s that rarest of things, a council-funded youth theatre which provides hundreds of local children with recreational theatre all year round. And they’re so good at what they do that, although it’s not the point, lots of their alumni turn professional.
And here they are in Oldham Library Theatre giving the highest standard of their art for not very much money, and entertaining hundreds of families at £8 a ticket. What could be more Christmassy than that?
The Secret of Christmas Eve is at Oldham Library until December 28, 2019. For more information, click here.