Because it starts long before the show begins: a miniature play in four acts.
M, L and B annually visit two or three perfunctory grottos populated by identikit Father Christmi.
L and B travel through them as though on a conveyor belt, receiving cheap and gendered plastic tat.
M quietly despairs.
School run, 25/11/2014, 8.45am
M: I bought lots of tickets for Christmas theatre last night. One of them is like a grotto, but it’s a theatre grotto. I know the people who are doing it a bit.
L (looking somewhat askance): Will it be weird?
M: Yes, it could be quite weird.
Act 3, Scene 1
School Christmas fair, 5/12/14, 4.33pm
M, L and B have queued for 10 minutes in the cold.
A woman in a cheap costume-shop elf outfit ushers them into a sparsely decorated garden shed. Identikit Father Christmas sits on a bench.
IFC: Have you been good this year?
L (looking somewhat appalled): Er, yes.
IFC: Well then, let my elf give you your presents.
The presents are gendered.
M quietly despairs.
Act 3, Scene 2
Journey home, 5.47pm
L: Mum, why is seeing Father Christmas always a bit … embarrassing?
M: Why do you find it embarrassing?
L: Because he always asks if you’ve been good.
M: Mmmm. It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?
Act 4, Scene 1
Journey to Shoreditch, 19/12/14, 3.40pm
L: You know you went to this grotto last week, what happened in it?
M: Well, there was a man who told beautiful poems about growing up in Georgia, and a woman doing bingo, and a man dressed up as a vicar whose bible was full of flour and made the air all dusty, and when he coughed his trousers fell down and he didn’t have any pants on so you could see his willy.
L (looking amused): Was that the grown-ups’ version?
M: That was definitely the grown-ups’ version.
Basement, Shoreditch Town Hall, 4.20pm
Temporary Cafe. Sign on the wall reads: Health and safety meeting for all departments on 24 December.
Cardboard boxes fill the room, a miniature city of skyscrapers, terraces and bungalows. L and B are clambering, leaping, stamping, throwing, tumbling, crawling, yelling, laughing. Within eight minutes, half the boxes are flattened, most displaced, and the scene is one of cheerful chaos.
M: Make sure you’re doing some creating as well as destroying, you two.
Other parents: Ha!
M notes that this is probably the best fun L and B have had all year.
Act 4, Scene 3
Elves lead children and grown-ups through the magic portal to the North Pole. One of them looks like a mermaid, another like Big Bird’s lime-green cousin. A conga begins. L is visibly unimpressed. Together we summon Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer, a pearly white puppet glowing serenely. B strokes his hind legs. L crawls underneath him. M is enchanted. Their faces are radiant. Rudolf leads L and B to an elfin workshop, where they make a bouncing toy.
Act 4, Scene 4
Father Christmas’ bedroom is fluffy and soft and lined with billowing clouds. His capacious bed is scattered with pillows, and when he wakes up his eyes twinkle. He tells the children the absolutely true story of how last year the London presents accidentally ended up in Inverness and all the pets and urban foxes came to his aid. B is enraptured. So is M. L is restraining herself from testing out the trampoline capabilities of the bed. It’s all good.
Father Christmas distributes gifts by age, without reference to gender. Then he climbs into his brand-new, pillar-box red flying suit, topped off with a shiny red helmet, and waves us on our way back to London.
Act 4, Scene 5
M: I loved that!
Other mum: Wasn’t it wonderful? I thought that was so good.
M takes L and B home, wondering if they’ll ever encounter another grotto so thoughtful and lovingly detailed in design, storytelling and fun. On the train she posts the box office listing on twitter. She wants to give Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari a big hug, to thank them for making proper magic. She writes a review instead.