The advertising blurb for Wishmas describes this festive extravaganza, lavishly installed in what used to be a portion of The Vaults near Waterloo Station, as being “for children of all ages” which strikes me as a cheeky way of flogging tickets to grown-ups without toddlers and preteens to bring along. On the other hand, the production values and design ingenuity of this immersive Christmas experience are such that one can’t help but be transported, even if you don’t have a bedazzled child in tow.
Wishmas feels a bit like what would happen if Punchdrunk took over a floor of Hamleys at Yuletide, with a brief to cater to the smallest, most impressionable of viewers while not actively alienating their adult parents and guardians. Creative director Elgiva Field (who has worked extensively with Punchdrunk) has helmed such a fully realised production that it’s quite a shock to the system to emerge back afterwards into the grubby streets of Waterloo.
From a visual and atmospheric point of view, Wishmas is a total success: designer Julie Landau, lighting designer Tim Mitchell and puppet specialist Charlie Tymms collectively give us giant cascades of glowing baubles and a magical train that ascends like a celestial tube from beneath Waterloo up into the stratosphere. There are fir trees, a space-age control room for Santa’s reindeer, gorgeous fat robin redbreasts emerging from brightly coloured birdhouses, a battery of fairy lights, smatterings of snow…the place even smells of Christmas spice.
The train ride is especially thrilling, with the whole structure juddering like the real thing before smoothing out and the “windows” showing video designer Catherine Woodhouse’s exhilarating vision of a journey high above realistic-looking London streets. The guides throughout all this are a team of winningly energetic actors playing Santa’s elves, sporting colourful bell-laden outfits and realistic-looking pointy ears. Once you get over the fact that their costumes bear an unsettling resemblance to the Wicked Witch’s guards’ uniforms in the original Wizard of Oz movie, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the attention to detail and the commitment of the performers (“we work as a team here” one of the elves sternly pointed out to my companion and I when we were holding back during one of the activities so as to let the small children get more out of it.)
The actual content of Wishmas as a ‘show’ is rather less successful than the overall concept. The idea that every bauble is a wish that requires transportation gets a bit belaboured (and the children at my performance didn’t seem that interested) and the opening explanatory sequence goes on a bit long, although there’s enough to look at that it’s hardly painful. There are a number of activities (if you hate audience participation, you’ll probably find the whole experience a bit of a challenge) but there are so many visual and aural distractions that it’s not always possible to hear the elf explaining what you’re about to do, and why, which can result in a general air of bewilderment. When Santa finally appears, he looks magnificent, every bit the classic storybook Saint Nick, although, at least on the day I was there, seemed more crotchety than cuddly.
Still, a great deal of money, talent and imagination has clearly been hurled at this project. If ultimately it may feel to some adults like an elaborately packaged Christmas gift without very much inside, it is entrancing for kids and will be a useful entertainment for families who feel like doing something festive but don’t fancy spending a couple of hours in a theatre.