The Lyceum Christmas Tales – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Directed by Zinnie Harris & Wils Wilson

Written by Louise Ironside, Jackie Kay, Lynda Radley & Shona Reppe

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A Christmas past, a Christmas present and looking to Christmases yet to come, The Royal Lyceum Theatre strips bare the hallowed stalls of their stage to ensure the spirit of theatre presents itself to hungry audience’s across the world. Culminating a grand spectacle of Scottish writing, poetry, directing and production talent, this week the final four Christmas Tales were revealed to the public and a sense of magic which has otherwise fleed the mortal coils this year, manifests in spectacular spirit.

From the early outset of this year, when tragedy was fresh and intentions unknown concerning the severity of the pandemic, naturally many turned their minds to the festive period and what it meant. A consequently short period, but which forges profoundly rich connections – Christmas, Noel, Solstice, Present Day – irrespective of capitalist notions or gorging on sugary carnal delights, there is something of the holiday is us all. The Lyceum recognises this, and perhaps, just ever so slightly more so than other production houses, understands the history, complexities and faces the Yuletide season can conjure.

Contemporary Scotland, familiar to many, wisped into the world by the words of Louise Ironside – The Christmas Ghost beckons the sentiments of Dickens or M.R James, grasping the tradition of a Ghost Story at Christmas and parcelling it in something fresher. Sharing your flat with a ghost and a spiritualist Grandmother can be a pain in the arse, especially when the ghoul has little to no understanding of your traditions, your pass-times and has the flatulence of something well past the grave.

In a nation where poverty and life-expectancy have tethered themselves to our culture, the reminders of the poor being the principal suffers from inaction, tie directly into The Christmas Ghost’s treatment of finality. Yet, in custom with us Scots, it finds humour. An abundance of charm and smile in Ryan Hunter’s presentation of the role, concealing what need be, revealing other aspects as we journey with him to a subtle, sombre conclusion as the first snow falls make for a paradoxically enthralling traditional piece of storytelling, with a contemporary visage and message.

Aspects strike familiar, the narrative leaning dangerously close to predictable, but never veers into cliché, pinning itself on the sentiment or recognition we have with Ironside’s story with those across the country. Not only one of tradition but on reflection of our own experiences this testing year.

Angela Davis, an American political activist and academic, is the sparking point for our second story. And though some will at first raise an eyebrow, in true spirit and understanding, Jackie Kay has their finger on the pulse of our lifeblood and demonstrates exuberant storytelling with Christmas with Angela Davis. Campaigns against the Vietnam War, a heavy influence in the second-wave of feminism in the states and a member of the Communist Party, Davis is an unsung hero for many, and a deserving role model for young women growing up across the planet. Kay’s writing is razor, witty and brings a distinctly emotive sense to the overall production, likely tapping into audiences more so than other stories may. Simplistic and clean in staging, the short is carried by Kay’s writing and Helen Katamba’s infectious personality, drawing on both gravitas and guilelessness.

We’ve seen Christmas of the present, but directors Zinnie Harris and Wils Wilson instead drive us into the roots of the festive period, the longest night of the Winter season with Lynda Radley’s The Return of the Light. Turning into the frozen distant past, emerging frostbitten but enlightened, those further north than the cobbled streets of the auld town, towards the Isle of Man and Skye will recognise the language and mythos presented. Returning to the stage following a tingling vocal performance earlier, Kirsty Findlay – star of recent sensational musical Islander, and of course The Byre Theatre’s 2018 pantomime, Findlay for any unfamiliar matches her exceptional vocals with deft control and understanding of emotion, and the ebbs and flows of storytelling.

So far the set design of Tom Piper has been cohesive, and imaginative in segments with flutters of whimsical imagination. Here, the Piper with which many are familiar has a free reign to erupt with monuments of glacial splendour – reflecting the intensity of Radley’s script and the stature of Findley in comparison to the Cailleach, a witch, a weather deity and a reflection of an incessantly powerful woman, cast aside for her age and ability.

Branching, delving into closeness with the camera, The Returning of The Light sees richer cinematography and angle manipulation than the previous tales. A refreshing manoeuvre, filmmakers Anna Chaney and Aly Wright extend their influence, Harris and Wilson take full advantage in their direction – recognising the intensity of emotion in Findlay’s characterisation to expand on their physicality in the role, dredging the emotional level into a raw form.

Returning to a much more relatable present, Shona Reppe’s A Cold Snap brings the ice-laden heart of The Grinch and Scrooge into the understandable and sympathetic heart of Carol, portrayed by Irene Allan. Alone, isolated from her family and her recently deceased partner, Allan carries a stoic woman who can no longer tolerate the incessant reminders of cheer and joy, but doesn’t bring down the tone. An engrossing performance with much joviality, occupying the space of the theatre with a variety of filming tricks, Allan still turns out a character the audience recognises and understands.

Maintaining momentum, interludes of a musical nature enrich the stories by reinforcing thematic styles and traverse genres and conventions. Still encompassing the familiar experience of a carol, we are privileged to hear the composition and design of performers Oğuz Kaplangi and MJ McCarthy. Who elevates the Christmas aura surrounding the silent theatre but still create a score which can be enjoyed and appreciated outside of the December period.

Throughout the year, we here at Corr Blimey have covered productions across the world from bedrooms, streetcorners and theatres anew, but to see a regional theatre, a local theatre, our theatre streaming directly into the candle-lit settings of home comforts is a feeling long-since forgotten. The Lyceum’s Christmas Tales re-light a kindled passion which has been hibernating, awaiting its return from the embers. That despite various attempts to quash and quail, the scorching impact of live theatre is far, far from snuffed out.

The Lyceum Christmas Tales has for the previous eight tales demonstrated the validity, tenacity and exceptional backbone of this industry. Hiring camera crew, editors, designers, constructors and stagehands, and to top it all off, forty additional freelance workers banding together to adapt, stitch, craft and evolve the conceptual Christmas production into new realms of unexpected territories is nothing short of wondrous, but then again, what would you expect from an ‘unviable’ industry?

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Tickets for the live show can be found here and as an extra special treat, all eight of the preceding Christmas tales will be free to watch until the Twelfth Night, January 5th 2021. Following the final night of the live shows, a recorded version of the closing four tales will be available for purchase.


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