Theatre reviews: Christmas Dinner | A Christmas Carol

It may have been billed as a relatively modest seasonal show, swiftly put together following the return of live theatre, but Christmas Dinner at the Lyceum is as as beautifully designed as it is heart-warming, writes Joyce McMillan

Elicia Daly in Christmas Dinner PIC: Laurence Winram

Christmas Dinner, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

A Christmas Carol, Tramway, Glasgow ****

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Everyone who has ever stood in an empty theatre will understand the impulse behind the Lyceum’s special 2021 Christmas show, particularly after the long months of darkness theatres have endured in the last two years. It’s that feeling that when all the transient light and laughter and emotion have gone, something remains, caught in the very fabric of the place; and in Robert Alan Evans’s new play Christmas Dinner – co-produced by the Lyceum and Catherine Wheels, and beautifully directed by Gill Robertson – that feeling is made flesh in a pleasingly daft yet powerful tale about an old theatre in lockdown that wants to stage a show no matter what, and an unhappy woman who needs to tell her own story, more than she knows.

So as the play begins, a brusque stage manager called Lesley is clearing up and locking up on an empty Lyceum stage, on a Christmas Eve when there is no show. The rest of the crew have gone to the pub; but Lesley is a female Scrooge, saying bah, humbug to it all.

The theatre, though, has other ideas; and Lesley’s grumpy routine is soon interrupted by four jolly theatrical ghosts – veteran actor Fruity, theatre fan Madame Lady, a gorgeous Bird Girl, and the slightly hapless Billy. They begin to search for a Christmas story to tell; and it soon becomes clear that the reluctant Lesley is the custodian of the story the theatre wants to hear, a tale of lost grandmothers and frozen hearts that carries echoes of many familiar Christmas fairytales.

All of this is presented in luscious Lyceum style, with superb lighting by Colin Grenfell woven into the very fabric of the story. Christmas Dinner was billed as a relatively modest seasonal show, swiftly put together to mark the Lyceum’s return to live theatre earlier this autumn; but in truth, Karen Tennant’s designs often look fabulous, a spare but gorgeous celebration of the Lyceum’s fine stage and beautiful auditorium, and of the relationship between the two.

The story has its sentimental moments, not least when it touches on the power of theatre itself. Yet Elicia Daly’s central performance as Lesley is both hard-hitting and heartbreaking, as a study of the long-term pain of bereavement; and with tremendous support from her four ghostly co-stars – Richard Conlon, Florence Olumoso, Sita Pieraccini and Ronan McMahon – she brings her tale to a breathtakingly simple and moving conclusion, as the bells of St Cuthbert’s ring out for Christmas Day.

At the Tramway in Glasgow, meanwhile, the Citizens’ Theatre revives its powerful and thrilling 2018 production of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol, with its memorable score and soundscape by Nikola Kodjabashia, and impressive design and puppetry by Rachael Canning. There are moments when the sheer theatricality of Dominic Hill’s production almost seems to overwhelm the central narrative of whether Scrooge can be brought to care, particularly about the fate of Tiny Tim, the story’s representative of all those who suffer and die in times when wealth is hoarded, rather than shared.

The strength of Bartlett’s hard-hitting version, though, and the unswerving emotional clarity of Benny Young’s central performance as Scrooge, ensure that we never lose the thread of Dickens’s moral tale. And as the story ends, an exhilarated audience cheers Hill’s brilliant young company of musician-actors to the echo, for a fine telling of one of the greatest Christmas stories, and a celebration of all things theatrical that truly captures the spirit of the Citizens’ Theatre, even while it remains a mile or two away from home.

Christmas Dinner is at the Lyceum, Edinburgh until 2 January; A Christmas Carol is at Tramway, Glasgow until 24 December.

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