I can be a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas shows (more than one panto a year is, in my opinion, too much panto). Luckily, Chris Bush’s The Last Noël – this year’s instalment of the Old Fire Station’s Christmas shows for ‘grownups’ – is definitely not panto, though it does have songs. It captures the complexity of feelings around Christmas, from excitement and joy to resentment and regret.
Stepping into the Old Fire Station space feels like being welcomed into a family home for Christmas. Alison Neighbour’s set design is simple and evocative: paper chains stretch up to the ceiling, framing the table at the centre. It puts the focus on the people who are why we come together. We take our seats as Matthew Winkworth (who also arranged the music) plays jazzy carols on the keyboard. Annie Wensak chats away merrily, Dyfrig Morris adjust the drinks selection, and Anna Crichlow offers around Christmas biscuits. Seated in the round, the audience is treated as a cross between very special guests and honorary family members.
The performers introduce themselves as grandma Alice, her son Mike, and granddaughter/ niece Tess. Like every family, they have their own traditions around Christmas. Theirs is a moveable feast, adjusted every year to fit around the unpredictable shifts of Tess’s mum Gail, a doctor. Throughout the play, they’re waiting for Gail to arrive. They tell stories as they wait and try to follow her instruction of not having too much fun before she gets there.
From the first song, the emphasis is on those rituals that only make sense because you’ve been doing them for years and, even then, still don’t make that much sense. ‘Some things should never change’, the performers sing, in three-part harmony. Alice, Mike and Tess tell the same three stories every year; they all insist that theirs is Gail’s favourite. The characters’ different attitudes to tradition effectively communicate more about them. Tess, having left home to go to university, is stuck between wanting everything to stay exactly as she’s left it and negotiating her own desires for escape and growth. Mike, reverting to childishness, is resentful that everything continues to revolve around his sister but is, nonetheless, a staunch advocate of the rituals that keep the family together. Alice, who breaks off her story several times, seems to be either forgetting or doubting the point of continuing these traditions.
The performances are broad in style and there is a lot of direct address, which can grate at times. However, it’s also a lot of fun once you get into the spirit of it. Dyfrig Morris is fabulously camp in his rendition of a stag-do themed ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, which includes the line, ‘Call me Santa bitch because you know I came to slay’ – possibly my favourite line of any Christmas show. The performers accompany him with homemade percussion: spoons, a cocktail shaker maraca. Singing and being silly together, they seem the epitome of festive cheer.
Yet the sugary opening of The Last Noël is tempered by darkness later in the play, like the kick of coffee in a gingerbread latte. What’s at stake in preserving these traditions is revealed. The family is defiantly doing what they have always done in the hope that it will stave off time and change. In her song about a lighthouse keeper waiting for her lover, Annie Wensak reveals a stunning depth of emotion, supported by the harmonies and director Jonathan Humphreys’ beautiful stage image. The story is about how love desperately tries to keep light alive amidst the dark. I think about how Christmas traditions illuminate who is missing as much as who is there. I start to cry.
The Last Noël is on at the Old Fire Station, Oxford till 23rd December. More info here.