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Noël Coward's Christmas Spirits (St James Studio)

Nick Hutchison's production offers something a little different for festive theatregoers

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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This unusual Christmas anthology, slightly too long and not as brilliantly conceived as promised in the opening salvoes, mixes the Master's music with Christmas Day in the trenches, lovely snippets of a Ben Jonson masque and John Clare's Shepherd's Calendar, Dickens and Dylan Thomas.

The premise of promise in Nick Hutchison's production (he's the writer, too, with "additional material" by Noël Coward!) is this: a forlorn Noël (Stefan Bednarczyk), pondering the misery of the Blitz, follows Churchill's advice to cheer up the nation and starts work on Blithe Spirit, summoning the characters of Madame Arcati (Issy Van Randwyck) and the maid Edith (Charlotte Wakefield).

Admittedly it was always going to be a tough call to fill a Christmas stocking with goodies while rigorously exploiting the outline of the play; but that's what you are led to expect. Instead, using a general framework of the dominant Master, the subversive eccentric and the plucky little housemaid, Hutchison and co invite us to forget the Blitz (as they do, soon enough), and have ourselves a merry little Christmas.

That latter standard is beautifully sung, unaccompanied, by Wakefield, whose unamplified voice, while smaller than I was expecting, is true and bell-like. Van Randwyck puts a lot more facial effort into her numbers, usually to good effect, striking out comically as a wannabe fairy on the top of the tree; and that number follows an ensemble treatment, Wakefield scampering all over the small studio, of Ogden Nash's delightfully jaundiced "The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus."

The two-hour show is held together, just about, by Bednarczyk's brilliant, symphonic piano playing and his unsurpassed rendition of some of Coward's best and trickiest songs: the invocation to Mrs Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage (with its crescendo of bitchy insult) and the ironically implacable "Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Germans" are alone worth the ticket price.

Bednarczyk also plunders Coward's light verse collection, repeating (from his Crazy Coqs season earlier this year) the juvenile seasonal reminiscence "The Boy Actor", a charming classic. Hats off to the eager trio: none of the standards sound hackneyed, least of all Wakefield's pure, unaffected version of Irving Berlin's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," as fresh and surprising still as Elizabeth Bowen's "Home for Christmas" and even Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Ding dong merrily indeed.

Noel Coward's Christmas Spirits runs at the St James Theatre until 23 December.''

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