Sandi Toksvig's Christmas Cracker

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

What do Christmas crackers contain but corny jokes, novelty items and a bit of noise… which means Sandi Toksvig’s Royal Festival Hall version has all the boxes ticked.

Partway between panto and upmarket variety package, this show has plenty of delights, some of them slightly cheesy, fitting the spirit of the season. But it’s also guilty of that other festive sin: overindulgence.

Toksvig is the perfect host for this sort of grown-up family entertainment, combining an air of authority with detached amusement over the proceedings, not to mention a keen wit that can be frisky, but never too potent for the youngsters in the room. She kicks off the night with a few after-dinner style gags before introducing the first of the turns – the energetic jump-jive song-and-dance quintet Five Guys Named Moe, who get toes tapping.

But stealing the show are Spymonkey’s Toby Park and Petra Massey as the lovestruck floor manager Popov and the Christmas Fairy. Popov is silent, communicating through mime, equine-like gestures and a Harpo-style hooter, through which he makes himself perfectly clear, thanks to some first-rate, subtle physical comedy. Fairy is more over-the-top, and even more fabulous for it. She starts indelicately enough, as a brusque-talking siren, but when she turns evil, the demonic Massey turns such a brilliantly grotesque scene-stealing performance, she’s probably the first panto villain you actually root for.

Their story weaves between the other turns, the next of whom is magician Pete Firman. There’s a touch of Eric Morecambe about his easy, cheeky banter – so needless to say it’s utterly endearing. The trick he chose, involving an egg and a bag, might not have been the easiest to see at the back of this imposing space, but his patter is where the real magic lies.

The three baritones – Mark Lanahan, Peter Snipp and Aneirin Hughes – provided an impressive musical interlude, skilfully set up in the proceedings, followed by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. There’s a different guest in this slot every day, from Barb Jungr to Denise Van Outen.

More music brought us out of the interval, with a brilliant, sometimes witty, new arrangement of the 12 Days Of Christmas from Diversity – the London-based gay and lesbian choir, not the Britain’s Got Talent dance act.

But then things started to come off the rails, with a shambolic version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, featuring guest stars who’ve clearly never set eyes on their lines before they arrived on stage. Tonight had one of the finest classical actresses of her generation, Fiona Shaw, reduced to looking bewildered; and Jeremy Hardy woefully underused. Even Ronnie Corbett, who’s in this every night, was fluffing cues and reading his lines from a script.

There were no particular jokes about the guest stars, nor was their lack of preparation particularly funny, leaving this a group of actors enjoying their own sloppy ineptitude, but the fun not quite coming across. It’s a delicate trick to get proper laughs out of amateurism – and one you need a lot of work to get right. This just seemed a mess.

After that debacle, Corbett’s charm won us back round, and hearing him tell a shaggy dog story is a nostalgic delight, even if the gags are so old you could recite them along with him. Enjoy the ride, even if you know the destination. This was a brief solo spot – elsewhere he banters with Toksvig in a Little and Little double-act with plenty of gags about their stature – and the warmth towards him is almost palpable.

Then all the Loose Ends are tied up and the fake snow begins to fall. Yep it’s corny, like much of the preceding show, but isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Review date: 18 Dec 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Royal Festival Hall

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