White Christmas, Playhouse, Edinburgh ***
Donald And Benoit, Pitlochry Festival Theatre / Sound Stage ***
If I were looking for a Christmas show to tour the UK in this pandemic age, I’m not sure that White Christmas is the one that would catch my eye. In an age of climate anxiety, the very title seems to take too much for granted, in terms of the genial December snows that used to visit North America and northern Europe.
Beyond that, the play’s subject – a 1950s old pals’ story about former wartime comrades coming together, ten years on, to help their much-loved general succeed in his new peacetime life – inevitably reflects the heavily segregated nature of the American military and American society at the time, making it difficult to cast in the more inclusive style that has now become the norm on the British stage. And given all the other pandemic-related difficulties currently facing major stage musicals in Britain, it’s perhaps not surprising that this current touring production, originally directed by Nikolai Foster, takes no bold steps to recognise either of those issues, or to find creative responses to them.
The result is a slightly lacklustre account of the show’s main plot, as this postwar tale of two young men finding love, and an old man finding a new future, plays out without any strong sense of dramatic tension, or indeed any real chemistry between the two couples at the heart of story.
The saving grace of White Christmas, though, always lies in its glorious score of unforgettable Irving Berlin songs, given full value here by musical director Neil MacDonald and his splendid seven-piece band. From the title song itself, through terrific song-and-dance numbers like Blue Skies and I Love A Piano, to romantic classics How Deep Is The Ocean and Counting Your Blessings, this is a playlist to lift the heart, delivered with terrific energy by a fine 20-strong company. And with Dan Burton and Emily Langham dancing up a storm as second couple Phil and Judy, and Sally Ann Triplett giving a knockout performance in the Ethel-Merman-style role of Martha, there are plenty of memorable musical highlights to an evening that may be a little short of drama, but never lacks that swing without which, as we all know, musical entertainment just don’t mean a thing.
At Pitlochry, meanwhile, the company is rounding off its year-long Sound Stage series of audio plays – this time co-produced with Prime Theatre – by presenting the premiere of a play by Jeanine Byrne based on Donald and Benoit, an eccentric but gorgeous children’s story by her husband John Byrne.
Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti’s production – scheduled for live audio performances this weekend – sometimes makes slightly awkward work of Byrne’s light-touch narrative, which tells the tale of a boy called Benoit, growing up in a Scottish fishing town, and his eccentric talking cat Donald, who plays an increasingly important role in his life after his much-loved widowed father sets off on a long fishing voyage, and does not return.
Set in the 1950s, the story features a large cast of fine Scottish actors deploying the kind of couthy retro-Scottish accents that do no favours to any story; and certainly not to one with such delicately surreal – and sometimes slyly satirical – humorous potential. Yet with Ben Occhipinti’s gorgeous light-touch score and seaside soundscape perfectly capturing the mood of the story, Donald and Benoit still offers a delightful hour of seasonal storytelling – and one, I would guess, that will offer at least as much pleasure to adults in the audience, as it does to any passing children.
White Christmas is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 30 December. Donald and Benoit is available online via Pitlochry Festival Theatre, until 19 December
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