During the first lockdown, my dad discovered that the wood pigeons in my parents’ garden had a slightly different coo-pattern to the pigeons less than a mile away in the local park. Not to be all ‘nature is healing’, but I guess more people had time to notice stuff like that this year.
The sound of wood pigeons recurs in Carolyn Downing’s sensitive, witty sound design for Nine Lessons and Carols – during a middle-aged man’s rueful monologue in his garden, as the birds eat the remains of his unsuccessful banana bread, and then again in a later scene in an abandoned allotment. It reflects the tone of the show pretty accurately, I think: gently melancholic, comforting. Softly woody. Maybe a little more autumnal than Christmassy, under Jack Knowles’s yellowing light.
Let’s see how I go with this numbering. Nine Lessons and Carols is a misleading title. Annie Firbank’s warm elderly voice tells us in an opening voiceover that there will be neither 9 lessons or 9 carols: “That was the first lie.”
I thought it was going to be a play about lying, then. But maybe that was the second lie, because it wasn’t. Perhaps it was about storytelling, sometimes: there are 3 funny scenes reminiscent of Annie Baker’s The Antipodes, in which a group of writers spitball ideas for Christmas adverts. St Bernards in biplanes with presents round their necks! Astronauts in a snowball fight!
The marketing claims, “This is not a Corona play.” I’d argue this is the third lie, or fourth, or whatever number we’re on now. Yes, Chris Bush cleverly treads a fine line in her writing. The virus is never directly referenced, and neither is it the glaring elephant in the room, waiting awkwardly to be confronted. But the play is a series of vignettes about loneliness, and what loneliness does to people – and particularly what it’s done to people this year. This particular year, in which we’ve had to live apart from one another for a particular reason. Of course this is a Corona play.
Which is fine. If you’re looking for singing about the dark times, an elegy for this strange year, then Nine Lessons and Carols provides it. The singing scattered through the show is lovely, actually. Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Katie Brayben and Maimuna Memon sing Memon’s songs beautifully, accompanied by guitar, piano and harmonium. The songs themselves are sad, soaring, poetic.
Early on, Brayben urges us to start a fire, to burn everything down and start again. Run riot, cause havoc, fuck shit up: “Burn your neighbours’ houses. Burn your birth certificate. Piss down the side of the Shard!” It should be easy, she says. You just need the right mindset. “Some of us have always been alone.” I liked the speech’s apocalyptic oddness and the way it caught briefly at something angry. Most of the rest of the play was quieter – cosy fireside, not white-hot flames – although Tom Scutt’s design, with clean, chopped logs piled against the back walls, perhaps still held the threat of sudden kindling.
Agyei-Ampadu delivers a grief-stricken final monologue, of a mother who has just lost or miscarried her daughter in hospital, without her partner by her side. She stands totally still, hands thrust deep in the pockets of her winter coat, boots rooted to the floor. She says that the word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Venetian-Italian ‘quarantena’, the period of 40 days that ships were required to wait out at sea before docking, to reduce the spread of medieval plague.
40 paragraphs is probably a bit ambitious.
I’m writing this pretty late, so there’s a lot been said already: the critical conversation that happens around a show with a proper, live theatre press night. Reviews for Nine Lessons and Carols are mixed. I feel kindly towards it, but I didn’t love it. I think it had a warm heart, and some good jokes, and touching moments, and a slightly disappointing insubstantiality.
Elliot Levey and Luke Thallon, both leaking sadness, play a father and son in a central, looping, broken scene. They never seem to leave the house. Their routines start to fray – is it late or just dark / blackout / is that lunch or dinner / blackout – until the scene morphs into something murky and impenetrable. How old are the father and son meant to be? Are they ill? Do they know?
I found the play’s regular shifts from the concrete to the mythic and metaphoric a bit frustrating. It felt at times like trying to please all the people all the time, to speak to a larger, shared experience that actually I don’t think really exists. People have lived through the pandemic in different ways. Stories and songs that try to draw those various experiences under the umbrella of shared humanity inevitably involve a process of blurring and defocusing.
Instead, Nine Lessons and Carols was at its best, I thought, when it was sharper, more acute, self-aware. Toheeb Jimoh, as a young delivery driver in a standout scene, tells the Almeida audience that, “the world didn’t stop just because you did,” and skewers London’s various sub-cultures as he describes his lockdown deliveries: ethical sex toys, books by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, house plants, dim sum. He is gawky and cheeky and endearing.
Rebecca Frecknall’s direction was smooth, spare and precise, allowing for no more than 6 actors onstage at one time. There are wide, safe gaps between pairs of chairs in the Almeida auditorium. I realised I had missed seeing actors look out and around – into audience members’ faces, up towards the Circle. That was nice.
I thought I might be able
to get to 18, at least.
As in, 9 lessons, 9 carols.
But not quite.
Nine Lessons and Carols is on at Almeida Theatre until 9th January 2020. More info and tickets here.