Michael Coveney: Christmas spectaculars great and small

Michael Coveney visits the biggest New York Christmas spectacular and one of London’s best and tiniest

Wow! Said the Owl
© Ellie Kurttz

Within forty-eight hours, I have seen, this past week, the greatest, and the smallest, of Christmas shows, taking delight in both, and marvelling at the special extra boost of good will and higher than normal high spirits the theatre absorbs at this holiday season time of year.

Before flying home from New York, I visited – for the first time in ten years – Radio City Music Hall in the heart of Manhattan for the Christmas spectacular, joining an early matinée audience of 5,500 in this amazing art deco, gold and orange cavernous arena fitted out with two giant organs, a full orchestra that rises from the deep, three dozen high-kicking, fabulous Rockettes, a scenic wonderland, multiple Father Christmases, a 3-D journey through Manhattan on Santa’s sleigh and a Nativity pageant with exotic costumes, three camels, two sheep and a donkey.

Two mornings later I was in the 100-seater Little Angel theatre in a dinky Islington square, right across the road from the King’s Head, to see Wow! Said the Owl, with my two granddaughters (aged four and two), done with simple music, ribbons, shadows, a silken sheet, fairy lights, a few props, one actor and a puppet owl, all on a small white end-stage box.

The first was a football match – four 90-minute shows a day through 3 January (since early November!), tickets priced between $85 and $187, crowds and coach-loads on the street, uniformed ushers, all shouting, all ethnicities under the sun, Broadway buzz; the second, genteel and middle-class – two or three 30-minute morning and matinée performances through 31 January, tickets £10 (£8 for children), Ottolenghi and estate agents on Upper Street, a quiet but expectant Saturday morning hum.

They say small is beautiful, and it certainly is at the Little Angel, where the foyer is cramped, books and sweets are on sale and, immediately next door, in the workshop, sewing and chiselling, sits Lyndie Wright (mother of film director Joe Wright) who founded this piccolo powerhouse of puppetry with her South African husband John back in 1961. The audience sits on long wooden pews, front rows and seats on the aisle reserved for children. It’s like a party.

Radio City is something else. Built in 1932 as an adjunct to the Rockefeller Centre, hosting concerts, movies, Frank Sinatra and modern rock stars, the Christmas show has run since 1933 and used to supplement the stage production with a screening of the season’s new film; now, it’s just the show.

Lizzie Wort and the owl
© Ellie Kurttz

But what a show! It’s simply jaw-dropping, less dripping with kitsch (alas?) than I remember but still gorgeous with the miraculous routine of the collapsing wooden soldiers – a long line, sideways on, concertinas slowly to the left, forming a big curvaceous human beanbag on a real cushion. The precision, and physical discipline, is totally awesome. The Rockettes are also Santa’s high-prancing reindeers, dancing tourists in Times Square on a whirlwind holiday tour through Central Park (Russian skaters on the ice) and Radio City itself, then ragdolls in stripy stockings in Santa’s toy emporium and glittering ice-maidens in the "White Christmas" snow scene, with singers lining the boxes round the stalls and eight huge helium snowballs, electrically controlled (don’t ask me how), drifting up and out into the auditorium and floating back.

Our narrator in Wow! Said the Owl – adapted from Tim Hopgood’s charming book, directed by Joy Haynes – is a slightly over-simpering Lizzie Wort, who is dressed in a white cloak of owl feathers herself, as little puppet owl decides to break the day-time taboo and see what the sun looks like. It looks like Lizzie with a huge yellow pancake on her head. Then there’s a tree (Lizzie in a green cloak) with leaves sprouting from hidden slits, flowers from pockets. Wow, wow and double wow. But night-time’s best, after all – little owl sits on Lizzie in a black cloak which lights up with coloured stars – just as magical, just as seasonal, just as joyful, as anything in Radio City. Happy Christmas.