Curmudgeonly and irritable, Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas is not the usual jolly incarnation of Santa that today’s children have come to expect. In the eponymous play, as in the book on which it is based, nothing much happens apart from us seeing Father Christmas preparing for his oncoming busy period, going to work and coming home again. There are no drastic plot twists, no morals or messages and no real sense of resolution or progress by the end. Add to this the sombre period backdrop, and there is arguably little to enthral a room full of young children with a low attention span.
And yet it works.
Mike Aherne – a few pounds lighter than the Briggs original – captures the hidden warmth of Father Christmas beneath the grumpy façade so that by the end we realise just how much he loves his job. He is a delightfully complex character.
The production, by Lyric Hammersmith and children’s theatre specialists Pins and Needles, has multi-faceted aspects to it, too. Rather than being hidden away behind the scenes, fair-isle wearing puppeteer Richard Booth is on display as he brings the various animal helpers and companions to life. Also visible on a nearby rooftop is the brilliant Katy Sobey, who provides the music and sound effects in the style of a traditional foley artist. Her view of the action means that her timing is impeccable, and the children are transfixed by watching how the sounds are created.
The play is also quietly beautiful. There is a dour prettiness in the scenery that conveys the aesthetic quality of Briggs’ original artwork: the set is full of gorgeous details that firmly place the play within the terraced houses of Briggs’ book – chintz decor, a traditional whistling kettle and an outside loo. The latter provides the location for the funniest scene in the play, with the toilet humour proving a resounding hit.
But perhaps the most riveting scene of all is a sublime visual moment when the sleigh appears pulled by the deer and the snow starts to fall. Just lovely.
The play is slow-paced and gentle, and it is undoubtedly all the better for it. At a time when you may be starting to tire of the brash, razzle-dazzle vibrancy of the festive period, this play offers the ideal solution. It is a quirky and charming way to ease into Christmas.
Father Christmas is running at Waterside, Sale from Tuesday 4 December to Monday 31 December 2018