Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music & Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Directed by Ian Talbot
It’s what we’ve been dreaming of, a White Christmas, an all-time classic of the festive season which branches out into a stage adaptation to warm the frosted edges of our hearts. Quite literally, as the cosey winter-wonderlands make room for a heatwave in December in Vermont decked-out production with all the trimmings and additional numbers and characters.
Though based on the 1954 classic from Paramount, starring cinematic treasures Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby, Ian Talbot’s White Christmas seems confused if it wishes to embrace the original or stand apart. Where the simplicity and clarity of the original film secured its place in history as a Yuletide treat – White Christmas finds itself stuck in a blizzard of confusion on the stage. Unsure if it’s a homage, a jukebox adaptation or an independent entity, White Christmas may capture some of the feels it sets out but doesn’t quite match expectations.
So where does it all begin? Well, Phil Davies and Bob Wallace – two men who could set the world, and hearts of many, on fire. Suave, debonair and a hit with the ladies, the pair forgo their planned trip to California, to instead follow two fine Sister’s as they make the trip up North to perform for a paying client. The only issue? Bob has no idea they’re not going to California.
Does it count as a cliché if it’s based on the film which largely invented the one it is guilty of? There is much to forgive with Irving Berlin’s music and lyrics, which do seem content with re-capturing the charisma of the nostalgia-soaked film, and the plot may find itself within the realms of simplicity – but there’s a timeless nature to it all, the interactions, the romances, it all exists in a world these stories solely manage to create.
Vacuous – there’s a disturbing lack of charm to an already established set of characters and story. And while there will never be another Cosby, Ian Talbot’s direction of Matthew Jeans leans heavily into the idea of playing it cool a little too literally – so much so that even the snow seems to thaw in comparison. Vocally the performance is top-notch, but there’s just a sense of authenticity missing – an attempt to emulate rather than strike out something new.
And between a less than suave Bob, and a more brazen and lothario inclined Phil Davis, the directorial decisions are perplexing. White Christmas evidently wishes to capitalise on nostalgia for the original piece but finds itself altering key characters in ways that don’t fit into the structure it’s aiming. Where it treats the eccentricities of its ensemble and female leads with more care, Talbot’s production leaves the lead characters by the door.
Though the principal cast certainly carries a tune, it is the chorus, Jessica Daley and Sally Ann Triplett who receive the warmest commendation for their vocals. Ensemble numbers carry through the Playhouse, evoking a more festive feel, and serve the leads well in harmonising the stand-out numbers Count Your Blessings and How Deep is the Ocean. Carried by Daley and Emily Langham, our female leads have a stronger footing than their lead counterparts, and though Langham has a smaller role, the tenacious no-nonsense attitude goes far – just a shame it is dropped come to the second act.
But it is Triplett, a comedic force and sincere performer who captures the audience in her mannerisms while keeping a contemporary vibe through her performance as the ridiculous and overly protective Martha. And additionally, a rather appreciative ending for the General who makes a touching speech, addressing his troops – it’s hard not to offer a salute in the audience to Duncan Smith, who carries the arguably small role with the gravitas a charm of a major character.
Even in forgiving the saccharine musicality of the production, there’s difficulty in recognising the chemistry onstage in moments. It has tenderness, yes, but the pacing pushes these characters together too quickly without infusing a sense of passion or care. Offstage proposals and musical insertions work against the flow, feeling shoehorned in for even the soppiest fans. Meanwhile, Stephen Mear’s choreography does its best to capture the magical essence of the show, succeeding somewhat if a touch-safe and occasionally lengthy, sacrificing time for character development.
Those wishing for a White Christmas may find themselves finding a small flurry, rather than a blizzard of expectation. Berlin’s production seems stuck in a limbo of its direction – unsure if it wishes to capture the original or find a foundation as its own being. Vocally, the production has merit, and as a solitary piece away from the original, it has elements of class and enjoyment.
White Christmas runs at The Edinburgh Playhouse until December 30th. Tickets for which can be obtained here.