Monday, April 22

White Christmas – Edinburgh Playhouse

Veterans Bob Wallace (Matthew Jeans) and Phil Davis (Dan Burton) have had a successful musical career since being discharged after World War II. But instead of continuing on with an engagement in Florida, they decide to follow female double-act the Haynes Sisters, Betty & Judy (Jessica Daley & Emily Langham) whom they have just met, to a Vermont lodge for a special Christmas show. There they discover the lodge happens to be owned by Bob and Phil’s old Army General (Duncan Smith) and is in desperate need of their help. Though the original show has been cancelled, a whole new show must now be organised to save the place from ruin and the General from his mood.

White Christmas was directed by Ian Talbot, based on the original direction by Nikolai Foster (Annie) and two-time Olivier Award-winning choreographer Stephen Mear. This was itself based on the 1954 musical film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, which was itself inspired by Irving Berlin’s song White Christmas, which had been introduced by Crosby twelve years earlier in Holiday Inn.

The poster proudly states The Times called this show a “terrific dose of pure escapism”. Wikipedia notes the original 2000s Broadway production was described by The New York Times as “fresh and appealing as a roll of Necco wafers found in a mothballed Christmas stocking.”

I haven’t seen the original film or the original production, but the latter description is closer to what I saw at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 2021. The show is at least to some extent a jukebox musical, including several songs (like the titular White Christmas) which were either well-known before they found a home in this story, or which Irving Berlin had written independently and chosen to include, possibly with a few modifications. With Jukebox musicals (and unrelated dance musicals) the plot can often take a back-seat to the numbers and the need to convert the film into a stage-show seems to have only diluted what there was to the story further.

The leads, cast and ensemble have great voices and their performances of the complex choreography is stellar, but these elements and the impressive sets cannot save a show which, by pretending to be more than a variety show of song-and-dance, becomes less than that. The characters don’t have space between the numbers to really get to know each other (one transition from hate to love seems to take place almost entirely because one person sees another interact once with a child they don’t know), to grow or to generate much conflict, and the songs are more a showcase of talent than a device to push any of these things. In fact, many of the numbers are being performed by the characters, either to a fictional audience superimposed over the real one, or in rehearsal for a fictional audience.

Thus, we end with a show whose climax involves a man being told he loves a woman who has gone due to a misunderstanding and then being told to get in the car which is already waiting for him to go get her. Of course, we cannot then see a race to New York, so instead we then see him arrive, say he doesn’t know what happened, be told “if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you”, and leave. The subsequent revelation of the misunderstanding doesn’t really involve him and part of it doesn’t even happen on stage.

This show could have been a classic throwback to the musicals of the era of the original film, but the translation of this old material (which might in of itself have posed problems to make work for a modern audience) lets it down. Quite simply, the care that is evident in the performances and technical aspects of the show have not gone into giving the audience a reason to care. Within its own context, the show is called White Christmas because the protagonists arrive in Vermont around Christmas only to find it warm and sunny, and then at the end of the show it snows. This wasn’t something that anyone other than the one-scene tourists played by the ensemble needed and it isn’t something that the characters tried to make happen in any way. In White Christmas, they forgot to have anyone dreaming of a White Christmas.

Running until 30th December,  

Reviewer: Oliver Giggins:

Reviewed: 15th December 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★