Review – A Christmas Story…the musical

A Christmas Story is an American institution. The musical version of the 1983 film (from the people who have gone on to write La La Land, The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen) tells the story of young Ralphie Parker in 1940s America, whose only wish for Christmas is to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun. Despite warnings from all the adults that ‘you’ll shoot your eye out’ he remains determined to win over his parents, school teacher, and department store Santa.

To the uninitiated this may sound like a strong does of American schmaltz, but the genius of the film, replicated on stage, is to have Ralphie’s and his classmates’ view of the world seen through the lens of his adult self in the form of a narrator. This brilliantly cuts through the schmaltz with a strong undercurrent of off-beat humour. Gary Freer does a superb job of getting us into Ralphie’s mind and expertly captures the tone and style of the author Jean Shepherd, who wrote the stories on which the film and musical are based and who is the narrator in the film. It would be easy to underestimate the importance of his role, but it is absolutely crucial to making A Christmas Story unique.

The other comic elements come in a series of episodes threaded through the central plot of Ralphie’s Christmas wish. These include his friend Flick being triple dog dared to lick the freezing school flagpole and duly becoming stuck in a ‘Sticky, sticky, sticky situation’, a show-stopping number in which the children are lead by their teacher Miss Shields – Jenny Gayner – in an outstanding full-blown song and dance routine. Also Raphie and his little brother Randy being picked-on by Scut Farkus and Grover Dill. And, of course, Ralphie accidentally losing the wheel nuts whilst helping his father change a flat tyre, exclaiming as he does ‘Oh fudge’ – only, as his adult self tells us, “I didn’t say ‘fudge.'”

As Ralphie’s mother, Lucyelle Cliffe brings caring and motherly warmth to proceedings with some delightful numbers of her own. As Ralphie’s dad – referred to only as ‘the old man’ – Simon Willmont enjoys battling with his neighbours dogs, the furnace that heats his house, his unreliable Oldsmobile and his crossword puzzle. In the case of the latter he eventually comes up trumps and duly wins ‘a major award’, which turns out to be what fans of the film know as the iconic leg lamp – a lighting feature in the worst possible taste which he insists on displaying proudly in the window.

The real stars are, of course, the child cast who, without exception, are a delight – fully committed to their roles and tackling some complex music in the process. Stand-out for me amongst them was Ethan Manwaring as Ralphie’s little brother Randy.

Director Gerald Armin has cut the show down to size to fit the 100 seat Waterloo East theatre (a bit of change from its New York outing at Radio City Musical Hall!). In a lot of ways this suits the homely, cosy feel of the story admirably. And with a live band squeezed behind the scenes, at times one forgets just how small-scale this production is.  But cutting out the dance breaks means some of the numbers are over too soon so fail to make as much of an impression as they might otherwise.

It would be great if this European premier could lead to something bigger next Christmas. In the UK we are only just beginning a tradition of Christmas shows other than panto, with Elf playing the Dominion theatre a few year’s back and Nativity coming into the Apollo this year. But I guess for a producer to take on A Christmas Story on such a grand scale needs the source material – the movie – to be far better known here. On American TV it regularly plays 24 hours a day at Christmas. Here, I don’t think it’s ever been scheduled.

So get to see it now so you can say your saw the European premier. It’s a great Christmas show and you’ll become part of an exclusive club for whom Christmas will never be quite the same again.

A Christmas Story the musical is at Waterloo East theatre until 22 December.



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