Once Upon a Christmas review

by Stewart Pringle

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★★★

Well, that was mental. Like someone’s broken a panto and tried to repair it with scraps of Westworld and the off-cuts from an episode of The Avengers that the BBC refused to air because it was just so fucking odd, Once Upon a Christmas is a promenade festive adventure through various shops in Covent Garden that’s probably even stranger than it intends to be.

You and a chum (if you don’t bring a chum they’ll pair you with a chum, and it’s disconcerting enough when it’s your chum you’ve got with you so take my advice and bring one) begin at the offices of a cabal of frazzled elves. The frazzledest one, nested in a pile of presents and post-it-notes, entrusts you with the quest of reuniting Cinderella with her Prince Charming in time for Christmas. If you can’t, it’s curtains for the denizens of Panto-Land. From there it’s off into the streets, where you’re assailed by giant mice, bitchy minor royalty and the odd story-book celeb. It’s somewhere between a very easy treasure hunt and a very disturbing dream, and if you can throw yourself into it you’re in for a pleasingly barmy time.

Spreading salacious gossip about Cinders or double-crossing a bearded Ugly Sisters is fun, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons’ script staying just on the right side of saucy – sexy Christmas being something of a cringey concoction at the best of times. A stand-out moment involves an encounter with the heart-broken Buttons, played brilliantly by Toby Manley, who’s a fantastic improviser and mines genuine pathos from his situation. There are also a few pressies to add to the festive treatiness of it all: the odd tipple, a ‘carriage ride’, and I hear someone got some chocolates but I missed those. For the most part it’s relentlessly good-natured and winningly aims for an atmosphere of giddy intrigue.

The problem is that it’s just consistently a bit boggling. The set-pieces frequently take place in one of those high-end shops that make Covent Garden a sort of Diagon Alley for the demi-posh, meaning that panto vignettes are tainted and skewed by the impression that you’re sort of taking part in a monstrously complex advertisement for the gilded businesses involved. There’s no sense of either audience autonomy or influence, with the decisions you make consistently failing to alter the course of events and only the most cursory nods to the creation of a reactive experience.

It all comes together in a climax that aims for Christmassy and lands squarely on petrifying, as the aesthetic of a direct to video Barbie animation collides with the trappings of the interrogation room. Think two-way mirror glass, eyes dilated by too much butterscotch and someone singing right up in yer grill. It’s sort of brilliant, and Look Left, Look Right make sure you leave with a (nervous) smile on your face and a glass of bubbly in your shaking hands.

There are two paths through the mayhem, and in the interests of full disclosure I have to say that my companion found the show to be a very poor evening’s entertainment, so one path may well be more fleshed out than the other and it’s probably not for everyone anyway. There’s a harsh barrier to entry in immersive theatre, with a considerable distance between ‘sweep you off your feet’ and a wearying trudge through the streets, but for me Once Upon a Christmasgenerally pulled it off. There are plenty of strong performances to savour, a sharp script and a stocking-full of WTF moments to have a good goggle at.

Written for Exeunt

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