Elf - A Christmas Spectacular, Thursday 18 November 2021 to Sunday 21 November 2021, CONGRESS THEATRE, Eastbourne
Now then, when will your Christmas begin? Are you itching to open the Advent calendar and put the lights up? Or do you get thoroughly Grinchy at the very thought? Get along to the Congress Theatre this week, and open you will soar into the season with everyone’s favourite Elf.
Do be aware that this show is not Elf the Musical, but Elf, a Christmas Spectacular. It is opportunist rather than actual Elfploitation, and there are references aplenty to the original movie. Lots of fans of the franchise were in evidence at Thursday night’s opening show, many of them sporting proper Elf costumes.
Eastbourne is actually the final stop on the production’s itinerary – and disappointingly there were no programmes or merchandising available. This reviewer can manage without the latter, if not the former, but a helpful company manager rustled up a cast list.
Led by the assured, experienced Tam Ryan in the title role, the show is in safe hands. Genial and lovable, Tam has made the Will Ferrell role his own on stage, and he is supported by a mainly youthful and certainly zestful cast of fifteen, singing with passion and clarity and relentlessly dancing their socks – or their Christmas stockings – off.
A real highlight of the production – actually threaded through the evening – is a series of absolutely brilliant circus acrobatics. They climb and spin on shimmering silken threads, they twist like gymnasts on trampolines, they rope in the whole company for an amusing number on roller-skates. Breathtaking and really accomplished.
Seasonal reds and greens predominate, of course, and the sets are bright and expertly lit, with superb use of huge back-projected clips and images to help the narrative along.
Never judge a show at half-time: a truth universally acknowledged by reviewers. Act One, consciously, goes for a pantomime feel, with some audience banter, groaningly dreadful puns, and typical set dances and tableaux. But the extremely simple plot – Buddy the Elf expelled from Santaland because his father was a human – is already feeling stretched. The tunes (with scant resemblance to the original Elf the Musical score) are not very memorable, the jokes are corny, and even the smiles look a little fixed and forced.
But after the interval, pace and energy levels rise drastically. Dialogue is tighter and the story line actually gets more engaging. Kelly Banlaki comes into her own in the Jovie role with strong acting and a fabulous singing voice, and Louise Franks sparkles as Debs. Santa Sleigh flies fabulously in a dazzling set-piece finale, and the rousing cheers and applause at the final walk-down are well earned.
Seasonal entertainment, or musical theatre, or pantomime? There are plenty of strands of the latter, even including a He’s Behind You nod to the panto Ghostbusters routine. But in a bigger space, without the intimate, conspiratorial feel which is the essence of panto, the show finally falls between genres. Five stars to a talented and energetic company, but nearer to three for the material they are working with.
REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson