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Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
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Christmas is a wonderful time of year when you're three years old, but times that age by ten, you're the one paying for it. Small wonder you feel hard done by when you have to pay for things like trips to the theatre for the kids, like my nephew had.

His first one, to be exact. The reaction on his face seeing Father Christmas in a stage adaptation of Raymond Briggs' comedy graphic novel at The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, was priceless.

His reaction to the fart jokes was as if it was real, his ability to willingly suspend his disbelief by wafting the imaginary smell of the Ghost Of Christmas Dinner really shows that Briggs is one of Britain's finest comedy writers and is brought to life by a stellar cast.

Briggs's very British take on the Christmas myth turns Saint Nick into a grumpy working class Cockney who feels that Christmas is at his expense, because he has to make other people's Christmas celebrations enjoyable. While this is a subtle dig at how Christmas is always at the expense of the working class, the cast humanise him by making him a grumpy, cynical man who loves the pleasures of drink, a foreign holiday in Malta, but hates the snow and his job.

Joshua's reaction was as if he was a Christmas tree connected to the national grid, his face lit up especially when the puppets of Cat and Dog tore up Father Christmas's pyjamas. He laughed at Dog's slapstick antics and the utter mischeif he wrought on His Saintliness.

Whether it's chewing up his Dad's slipper or pining for his bone, his antics really brought out the subtle visual gags Briggs is famous for and although they went over his head like Nick and his sleigh, they really added rich detail to the performance. Even the Steptoe And Son reference of a bottle of wine marked "Vin" added depth to the working class milleu by showing Father Christmas's aspiration for a happy retirement in liquid form, amidst the grimy conditions of the East End in the 1930's-70's.

While less graphic than the cartoon strip, the staging really brings both the East End to life by having the outsite toilet and other accurate details, such as the 1950's BBC Recieved Pronounciation announcer on the radio, and really brings out the magic in the everyday. The outside toilet even doubled up as stables for his reindeer and the magic of the theatre changes it with a sign on the door. The sets were taken directly from Briggs's own artwork, but the staging was almost taken frame by frame from the cartoon strip. On the other hand, the music wasn't.

The music and sound effects were performed by an actress who was second to none in setting mood and tone. The trumpet she played powerfully established the working class milleu by evoking the brass band of the colliery towns in the North of England, especially when he undertakes mundane tasks, but when he takes to his sleigh, it shifts to a medieval was sailing song played on a recorder.

Although the sound effects being performed live echoed a school production, it really suited the target audience of toddlers, for whom the magic and comedy was enhanced by the school play like sound effects. As the actress sat in a room at the top of the set, it really seemed irrelevant to them as they were focused on Father Christmas himself.

Even Joshua believed that one of the prop presents he had was for him, which moved me because he saw it as real. He was undecieved as to whether this was real or fiction, taking it at face value yet knowing that this was a work of fiction. As he laughed at the fart jokes, he wafted the fake smell away.

As a comedy, the play really skewered the myth of both the jolly old man with a belly like a bowlful of jelly by making him a working class grump, and the myth of Christmas as a magical time by alluding to the work that goes into celebrating christmas, such as manufacturing gifts, distributing them, preparing the feast, but also how stressful it is.

As soon as His Saintliness awakes, he is much dismayed by the fact it's Christmas Eve and he has to work when many people have the opportunity to switch off for two weeks. Given that he has to grin and bear the burden of delivering gifts, he is no different to any domestic or public servant who has to work to allow people to enjoy their Christmas. Indeed, much of the humour is based on his resentment of the fact he has to work on Christmas Eve and others get to enjoy themselves, but it seems worthwhile in the end.

Father Christmas runs until 31/12/14 at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.
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When: 14 November - 31 December 2014
Where: Lyric Hammersmith, Lyric Square, King St, London W6 0QL
Cost: Adults 10 / Children 8
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