Ida Barr: So This Is Christmas

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

What a surprisingly old-fashioned variety show. Pitched halfway between the music-hall nostalgia of The Good Old Days and a more ironic piss-take, Chris Green’s fifth Barbican Christmas offering works best when its tongue is out of its cheek, offering uncomplicated festive cheer.

His character of Ida Barr is an aging Cock-er-ney sparrow, trying to relive her glory days as a mid-bill turn at the Moss Empires while keeping up with today’s East London youth, never asking a question when she could arks it instead, innit? Her stock in trade is to rap her OAP complaints over a contemporary beat – artificial hip-hop, as she calls it – and to that end, the new Lily Allen/Kate Nash style of Mockney music has been a godsend.

After establishing this, the utterly convincing Green gives us the menu of the evening’s entertainment: with a winsome stage-school singer-songer-dancer-actress and an end-of-the-peer magic turn, 70 years in the business.

We’re prepared for a spoof; comedy caricatures poking fun at the desperation of entertainers from both ends of the spectrum. But blow me if they’re not the real thing… and both of them threaten to steal the show.

After a brief bit of business, the engaging Jess Robinson belts out an impressive medley of songs, faultlessly impersonating everyone from Kate Bush to Amy Winehouse; an act that you might think wouldn’t be out of place on a cheesy talent show. But her talent and showmanship is stunning, and easily wins you over. Expect her to be starring in some West End musical before too long.

Then there’s conjurer Mark Raffles, who comes out with the always tedious interlocking rings illusion. But just as you start to switch off he reveals his trick: an hilarious Cooperesque incompetence (with a small nod to Maxwell Smart) that becomes a ridiculously brilliant bit of physical comedy.

Shows like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, not to mention alternative cabaret shows such as La Clique, have unlocked a long-overlooked demand for classic variety done well – and Green, clearly a fan of the genre himself, has astutely tapped into that.

Not only do we get these turns, but the whole evening harks back to simpler entertainment, perhaps befitting these recessionary times. The audience join in with a Christmas singalong, do the Hokey Cokey and the conga, and witness a round of musical chairs that turns eve the most reluctant audience participant onto a fiercely competitive combatant.

Party games? Kids’ dances? Octogenarian magic acts? Is this really the festive offering from a prestigious venue known for its artistic risk-taking? Well, yes it is – and what a great knees-up it is.

As Barr, Green conducts the frivolity with skill, merrily bantering with the front row, spreading the seasonal jollity and battering down the inhibitions. Zipping in on a motorised scooter sets the energy levels high from the start, and he always conducts the crowd like an experienced game-show host.

His own set pieces don’t sparkle quite so much. The rap numbers are pleasantly enjoyable, but little to get excited by, and his repertoire of unashamedly old jokes and creaky puns are still poor, however much charm he wraps them up in.

But he’s had the good sense to share the limelight, and in this show concentrates most of his considerable efforts on making sure the audience simply has a laugh, taking nothing too seriously. And if you can’t do that at Christmas, when can you?

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
December 12, 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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