The Whingers have been displaying an awful lot of festive cheer of late. Too much.
They were charmed by Cinderella, agog at Aladdin and have generally and uncharacteristically been joining in all opportunities for audience participation as though they were finally in touch with their inner kiddie-winks (although sadly Phil’s inner child has already turned 23, has just finished university and is temporarily working as a barista until some company desperate for someone with a 2:2 in art history comes knocking) .
But perhaps it was Monday night’s trip to see the disappointing Nine (to which Andrew awarded a Three and Phil a Six. That’s out of Ten, you understand, not Nine) that proved their inner and outer grumps to be alive and well and on track to see out the festive season intact.
But who would have thought it would be a trip to the Royal Festival Hall to see Sandi Toksvig’s Christmas Cracker Starring Ronnie Corbett that would have them crawling the walls and screaming for mercy?
Well, the Whingers thought it actually, as the word on the street (and, indeed, under this review) was not good. In fact the word was that this was a train disaster that would make Eurostar look like the very model of a smoothly operating, efficient mass-transit system.
But the Whingers were dropping in a whole week later than those disastrous first performances that had audiences leaving at the interval, probably preferring a night stuck in a car in a snowdrift. And it was Andrew’s first chance to see comedy legend Ronnie Corbett. Surely things would have improved?
Things didn’t look promising. Signs on the doors warned audiences that by entering the auditorium they were consenting to have their images filmed. Apparently it was being screened live on the Sky Arts Channel (no, nor did we). What are audiences supposed to do, having planned their outings, spent money getting to the venue, hired babysitters (well, Phil had hired two for the evening to look after Andrew)? Make a sudden decision at the door not to enter? Absurd. Andrew could feel Phil mounting his high horse. He was already in grump because the Whingers had already had their carefully selected seats changed because of the filming (although Andrew – who took the message – didn’t recall the RFH mentioning anything of filming. If they had he would surely have asked Phil to dress up a bit for a change).
The, admittedly, free “programmes” (a single printed A4 colour photocopy and an A5 songsheet) were in short supply and audiences were being told they would have to share them. How appropriately Scrooge-like of them to ration the photocopies to people who had paid £35 a ticket.
But what of the show itself, which is billed as “a joyous mix of music and comedy”? There’s so much to say that the only fair way is to list the atrocities one by one.
1. As the event was being filmed the Whingers had to put up with a distracting camera in front of them. Ever been to the cinema and seen some idiot playing with their mobile in front of you? This was far worse. Phil contrived to look at his watch, yawn and close his eyes every time he saw a camera on him, it was a performance better than anything on stage. Let’s hope that Sky Arts had some pretty nifty editors in the editing suite. Even worse the lights were left on in the auditorium reducing any atmosphere to zero. Get hold of a copy of the show now and catch us without our hands in front of our faces. This may be your only chance.
2. The sound was terrible. Presumably it was miked for TV rather than the paying audience. Dialogue was often unintelligible and it had a nasty echo. Even a legendary old pro like Ronnie Corbett couldn’t always be heard and surely this wasn’t his fault.
3. There was a character called Popov who, poor chap, had to mime his entire performance. He wasn’t the only one lost for words. Nothing could describe how embarrassing it was to watch him. Sometimes he had to mime horse movements and it looked more like an audition for a bus and truck tour of Equus, and not helped by his strong resemblance to Corrie’s Roy Cropper. At the interval he was unanimously voted by the Whingers’ entourage “the person we would most like to slap”. It would be heartless to name the performer forced to suffer these indignities. Toby Park.
4. The audience participation. The Whingers lost the will to live very quickly and although they had shouted themselves hoarse at pantos in previous weeks when Sandi Toksvig said “I feel there’s magic in the air” they felt like felt like screaming “Oh no there’s not! They were even tempted to “do an Amy Winehouse” and shout “He’s f***ing behind you!” Dear Amy, if only she’d rocked up at the RFH to provide some real entertainment.
5. Tony Award winning actress and singer Frances Ruffelle. Yes her, Sylvia (founder of the famous theatre school) Young’s daughter sang a couple of Christmas songs in a tight sparkly dress but like the Whingers looked like she’d rather be elsewhere. Ruffelle missed her final note by such a huge distance one assumed it too was stuck in the Eurotunnel.
6. Olivier Award winning actress Sara Kestleman. Why? Why was she there? She’d played Mrs Cratchitt the previous night but was given nothing to do this particular evening. Did she turn up because she hadn’t appeared on TV in a long time? For the long overdue finale she sported a sequinned butterfly motif top. We sincerely hope it wasn’t her own unless she purchased it for the St Dunstan’s Christmas party.
7. Five Guys Named Moe didn’t really have much room to dance and we weren’t clear who they were anyway. Which five guys named Moe were they? Are they in a touring production of Five Guys Named Moe or something? Is there one? Or are they five guys who really are named Moe? Or pretend to be?
8. Magician Pete Firmin‘s disappearing egg trick probably worked well on the telly but was lost in the cavernous hall.
9. The second act opened with the London Gay Men’s Chorus. The poor carolling inverts were made to mill around on the stage from about halfway through the interval. And even when the band appeared on stage nothing actually happened. Eventually the audience started slow hand-clapping at which point Ms Toksvig rushed on stage to explain that we were waiting for the ad break on Sky Arts to finish. Anyway, eventually they sang a couple of tunes arranged for lacklustre but Andrew’s attention was completely stolen by the fact that their conductor wasn’t wearing a belt. Could he really be gay?
10. If you wanted to participate fully in the singalong at the end you had to buy a Christmas Cracker (£2) which contained an electronic candle to wave. It was the first time the Whingers have ever been asked to stump up for props.
11. Amazingly the second act A Christmas Carol was penned by the marvellous Dillie Keane but she – wisely – is in New York and the resulting farrago came across more like a Crackerjack or Generation Game sketch only less professional and without the laughs. Half of them were not even off-book – even Ronnie who’s in it every night (apart from when he gets stuck in snow). Arthur Smith was called upon to read Scrooge which he did with the air of someone under a contractual obligation do do so, but not one so watertight that he needed to attend a rehearsal. Lionel Blair is to be a Scrooge later in the run.
12. In one of the more surreal moments of the night the audience was encouraged to applaud excitedly at the appearance of special guest star Charles Hazlewood. Exactly. Turns out he is a conductor of some renown so obviously it was his role to umm narrate the A Christmas Carol story.
If you’d watched this on Sky Arts you would have been reaching for the remote within minutes. Subscribing to Sky Arts won’t be on the Whingers’ list of new year resolutions. Was it all a terrible waste of time? No. There were four laugh-out-loud gags and the company was convivial (but that was of our making, of course). The most exciting part of the evening was discovering that the RFH seats are equipped with cup holders which happily take a large wine glass. We may return.
Merry Christmas one and all.