Review: Nine Lessons and Carols: stories for a long winter (Almeida Theatre)

The north London venue reopens with a brand new play

Nine Lessons and Carols: stories for a long winter
Nine Lessons and Carols: stories for a long winter
© Helen Murray

As theatres have struggled back to life in the face of an unbelievably hostile environment, they've generally revealed an impulse to stage the cheerful, the safe, the familiar. So it's extraordinarily brave of the Almeida to return with a new work, devised by its cast, director and the writer Chris Bush, which tries to capture something of the mood of the terrible times we are living through.

Given that artistic director Rupert Goold arrived on stage at the start of press night to thank everyone for their hard work in getting theatre open again, including – uniquely in my experience – the press, it feels rude to cavil. But brilliant in some respects though this production is, it doesn't deliver on its promise.

This is not only because the subject matter is pretty bleak, with a thread of loneliness and isolation running through every scene just as it has run through many of our lives. It is fine to believe in the Brechtian notion that in dark times there must be singing about the dark times. But the episodic structure, stories and songs and even a poem, makes it feel as if it is skating along the surface of things rather than digging deep.

It is, however, magnificently done, directed by Rebecca Frecknall with a directness and ease, and performed by every one of the cast with spellbinding commitment, and creating a sense of awe at the simple pleasure of being back in a room, telling stories to try to make sense of things once more. Stripped of so much furniture, with its socially distanced seating, the theatre feels like the lecture theatre it once was. Or perhaps a bare Methodist chapel, with logs lining the walls in Tom Scutt's circular setting.

Although any resemblance to the famous service of carols and lessons from King's that marks many people's Christmas is entirely and deliberately fictive, there is a sense of almost biblical myth-making in the opening tales, a legend of a world where pain is represented by a thorn buried in each individual's back, which only contact with another person can alleviate – and of the agony that is hidden inside, which is harder to treat but which still requires others to help.

From there it unfolds into a sequence of scenes which cover everything from an irritating advertising brain-storm about what sums up Christmas in a time of Covid, to an argument between siblings about the value of attending a demonstration to assert Black Lives Matter, to a sad widower discussing banana bread, to a man who takes in a dog which becomes the symbol of his own depression. In between there are songs, composed and sung by Maimuna Memon, often with Katie Brayben and Naana Agyei-Ampadu in glorious three-part harmony.

The writing is as sharp as the acting. Toheeb Jimoh pulls off a wonderful tragi-comic scene, with a bite worthy of Dickens, about his life as a delivery driver. Elliot Levey is waspish and moving as the widower – "We're a whole nation of survivors, eating our grief, nothing special about me anymore" – and as a father in a disturbing encounter with Luke Thallon as his son where time slips and slides and it is unclear who is ill and who is looking after whom. Brayben and Thallon play a couple for whom a conversation about travelling in a camper van leads to an unravelling of a relationship; the same character later appears on Memon's allotment. Agyei-Ampadu mourns the loss of a child, cut off by regulations that are meant to protect her. Individual moments like these catch and snag the mind.