Appealing to an audience of under-sixes is a challenge, one magnificently met by the Oxford Playhouse’s production Hurry Up, Father Christmas!. The Burton Taylor studio was transformed into a festive wonderland with snowflakes, Santa’s sledge, and presents galore.
The excited audience, including toddlers with their ‘giant’ parents, were rapt in 50 minutes of seasonal magic and Helen Eastman’s witty script, director Amy Mulholland using every trick in the book to keep the 55-seater auditorium on the edge of their soft red cushions, scattered on the floor. Father Christmas’ Sleigh Shed is where it’s at.
This was a hugely engaging production, in which cast interaction and audience participation struck a key note. Even before the production began, the cast began its charm offensive – learning names which came in useful later, when crawling toddlers and excitable three year olds spilled out of their sitting areas to get a better look at the action.
‘Stand aside, Freya’, the Elf and Safety man said, as he returned a prone toddler to her mother, and rounded up a few straying sibs, with a joke. The trouble was, the action was just too engaging to stay put.
At one point, the whole floor was on the move at once, as a huge banner was unfurled in the centre of the seating area, and every child was given a wax crayon to express themselves in colour.
Leonie Spilsbury and Richard Evans were superb entertainers and accomplished musicians and singers. Evan’s main character Mr Tick Tock’s use of the metronome was masterly, while his cello playing, and Spilsbury’s clear singing voice, carried the many musical numbers. The actors’ skill in pantomime and a wide range of dramatic credits rendered them bomb-proof to infant heckling.
Anna Bruder’s wonderfully evocative set was beautifully complemented by Patrick Stockbridge’s musical compositions. I loved the use of rude sounds and the cascade of sleigh bells. The performance’s frenetic pace was enlivened still further by slapstick characters misbehaving. It raised a lot of laughs, yet disturbingly something more sinister. Even Leonie Spilsbury’s innocent Ivy the Elf was blithely shopped by a young audience member.
Surely grassing up an hapless helper to their boss, Santa Claus, demands one Christmas present less down that young man’s chimney – but hey, it’s Christmas.
If you have a clutch of under sixes in your house this holiday season, head for Santa’s Sleigh Shed. It won’t disappoint. You can enjoy the many jokes and japes, while raising your arms in the air. At your feet, joining a sea of admiring child faces, and a few adults who missed out on chairs, the dastardly crisis in Christmas delivery will hold the house captive - without a peep from the young ‘uns in your direction, for at least an hour.
That’s an extra special Christmas delivery. Enjoy!