Ahh December, a time for proud parents to crowd into overheated school halls and gymnasiums to watch the tradition that is the school Christmas show, usually an event where hymns and Christmas songs are gently murdered by offspring with varying degrees of talent. Fortunately, I am at The Pendleton School of Theatre this evening where no such horrors await, and I’m wafted gently into the festive season on a tide of theatrical artistry that ensures the continuation of the excellent reputation of this school.
Nostalgia blankets the programme this evening like the frost outside on this freezing Salford night, with both Musical Director Neil G Bennett and Director Becky Marshall raiding their memory box of Christmas, bringing us a programme that in addition to the traditional, allows a couple of unexpected choices to feature. A Cabaret style table layout, complete with complimentary wine and nibbles create a suitably festive ambience on entry as audience members freely mingled and relaxed. This staging was complimented by both Bennett and Nathan C Jarvis (resplendent in sequin dinner jackets) featuring on two Grand pianos, one black and one white, standing at the rear of the simple white set, their versatility amply demonstrated as we progress through the programme.
A selection of songs from ‘South Pacific’ start the evening, this may seem a rather incongruous choice until we remember every Rodgers + Hammerstein movie we repeatedly devoured throughout our childhood Christmases, ‘Younger Than Springtime’ (Alex Ryan and Gracie O’Brien) and The Company rendition of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ were particularly delightful during this section. Interspersed throughout the evenings tableau of musical theatre is Scrooge (Ciaran Lockwood), bringing Dickensian sourness to the surfeit of sweet that surrounds us, Lockwood appears throughout the evening, embodying the ghostly figures he describes with believable spleen until his eventual redemption. The Company brings the first half of the show to a rousing conclusion with ‘Thank You Very Much’ from the musical based on ‘A Christmas Carol’, choreographed skilfully by Director Marshall within the limited space in the theatre.
As opening night nerves settled, the second half had a raucous opening with a ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ medley being my highlight from the evening. Bella Sant and Jacob Bland (Doll on a Box), Hushabye Mountain (Kaden Boote, Brook Debio, Alex Ryan & John Richmond) and Truly Scrumptious (Jasmine Parkinson, Lochlan White & Gracie O’Brien) all delighted, but in truth the whole company brought energy and life to this part of the cabaret. Pendleton has long had a tradition of excellent choral singing, and this is maintained with ‘The Consort of Voices’ rendition of ‘Shenandoah’ (a favourite of mine) as well as the more traditional Christmas ‘Mary’s Lullaby’ by John Rutter, well blended and with excellent soprano tones.
A more modern musical offering concluded proceedings, ‘Elf – The Musical’ is a little saccharine for my taste, but I’ve no doubt that this was a popular choice within the young cast and gave the costume department a chance to shine (take a bow, Head of Wardrobe Emily Buckley). ‘A Christmas Song’ (John Richmond, Jessica Ibadin) was the highlight but once again the collective spirit and enthusiasm shone through every performance.
It is my contention that every critic should visit theatre school performances on a regular basis to witness the development of young talent, but more importantly to reconnect with the enthusiasm and brio with which young performers engage their audiences. I left Pendleton School of Theatre both reinvigorated by the show and happy knowing the industry’s future is as bright as ever. Congratulations and a Merry Christmas to all involved!
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 7th December 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★