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[Review:] THE CHRISTMAS QUEST, Blue Elephant Theatre, London.

Written by Niamh de Valera, The Christmas Quest is a delightful performance for families and children. It is currently performing at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

This performance really works the imagination of its young audience, from the usual Christmas tales to magical devices, talking teddies and enchanted worlds. Not only is the content very fruitful in this way, but there is also an interactivity to this performance. Children are able to post letters, which they have completed prior to the performance, with sentences to finish and a drawing of Santa to colour, and play a vital role in securing that the Christmas Quest be successful, forming bridges over chasms and encouraging the characters with a Christmassy rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’ and, of course, reindeer dancing.

However, the danger with encouraging such interaction from an audience of children is, of course, that excitement may overcome them and cause them to lose focus and calm. This definitely proves to be somewhat problematic in this performance for two reasons. The first is that there are no real cues or implemented tactics to calm the children. One quick solution to this is to fascinate or mesmerise the children. Overstimulating visuals or sounds tend to both magnetise and stupefy young children, and this makes for a more receptive spectation. This could be achieved through lighting or through set, the letter machine being a perfect site for both of these, or slow music also tends to do this, but I do not think that would be particularly congruous stylistically with this performance, nor would that complement time — the performance’s duration only being one hour.

The second reason concerns energy and style. Energy remains incredibly high, particularly in the very beginning of the performance, which is wonderful, but it does mean that it is difficult to come down from the high, as it were. The shift between interactive and self-contained scenes is unmarked and hence relatively unrecognisable, and, furthermore, there are many mixed signals as to whether the children are allowed to interact or not. Popping up again and again in various locations around the stage before darting back behind the curtains, Ruby the Reindeer (Amelia Parillon) waves cheekily and furtively at the children as they settle in the space. Meanwhile, Elliot the Elf (Santiago Del Fosco) interacts with audience members, even asking one child to ‘look after’ the Elf Phone which is placed beneath them. This setup is, of course, emphasising the interactive quality of this performance. When Ruby finally enters for good and converses with the Elf — for a period of time I would deem far too long to hold a child’s attention successfully — it is intended that the children listen to their conversation intently. Besides a few initial smiles out to the audience, this scene is completely self-contained. This beginning has permitted energy to build considerably amongst the children…yet, where does this energy go? When the children are intended to remain passive spectators during this conversation, they are obviously most likely to become restless and disruptive. Restlessness was definitely true of the young audience that I witnessed.

I would definitely recommend a revision of style for this performance. Scenes should progress from interactive to self-contained and vice versa fluidly and clearly and should not leave an audience second-guessing or unsure of their function. I would recommend that scenes in this particular performance always retain a sense of interactivity yet through asides, glances to the audience, and a third-person narrative. Whilst moments such as Ruby’s introduction should be delivered to the children directly, conversations and other longer pieces of speech should be self-contained yet delivered as if direct audience address. This would entail angling oneself to be always facing the audience and reacting overdramatically and self-referentially, all whilst speaking to one another in the third person (think pantomime but without the extravagance). For the most part, it was clear that Parillon and Del Fosco were deliberately trying to face the audience. In a more naturalistic and adult-oriented performance, facing away would not be too great an issue, but for a performance like this, such traditional rules of theatre apply strictly.

In the very beginning, there is definitely an attempt to calm the audience. Elliot remarks how wonderfully the children are organising themselves and how attentive and quiet they are being, a condition and tone they are very well accustomed to in education institutions and so will respond to more readily over other techniques. On the morning I saw this performance, this was somewhat effective…initially. Ruby’s appearances soon caught the attention of the children, and an indirect game of ‘It’s behind you’ ensues, shortly after which Elliot demands their attention once more. Not only is Del Fosco’s control of the environment compromised by the added excitement of spotting Ruby, but there is, again, mixed messages: are the children supposed to be listening attentively to Elliot or screaming for having seen Ruby? This latter is seemingly made acceptable by an enabling Elliot.

So, omitted tactics to help maintain order, calm and focus potentially make this performance rather thorny. Yet, this thorniness is met with a comprehensive plot and very endearing characters. Through a magical, Christmassy lens, the plot successfully presents a clear story structure: context, problem, solution, conclusion. Simplicity is good here for a children’s production, and the linear, progressive structure followed is one a child at this age can recognise very well. The two characters, Elliot and Ruby, start off as distinctly different: Elliot is organised, meticulous and intelligent; Ruby is bubbly, lighthearted and somewhat dopy. Not the seemliest pair, these two characters end up joining forces and saving the magical crystal together, along with their sidekick, Teddy. This trio are very lovable and consistently remind the audience that friendship pervades all with the initial exclusion and final integration of Teddy.

Such narrative developments, however, are not communicated in the best way. There seem to be core messages that the play is trying to convey, such as this one which teaches the children to never exclude one another despite their differences, yet these are given little stage time and are not made to be anywhere near prominent enough.

I mentioned that the plot was easy to follow, and this is true on a fundamental and conceptual level, yet even this is rather complicated in its overall expression. The main thing that would complicate a reading of this performance for a young audience is the script’s language register. Words like ‘translated’, ‘process’, ‘excluded’, and, later, the deliberate addition of ‘suitable projectile’, are used much too frequently in this performance. What is more, when they are used — usually by Elliot — there is no change in persona or tone. When Elliot explains that the two will need a ‘suitable projectile’ to get the crystal down from a height, for example, despite his relatively pedestrian pacing, there is no change in his persona, nor is any attention drawn to the fact that he is utilising such complex vocabulary; this is just naturalised in the dramatic text. This joke falls especially flat, given that Elliot speaks this way regularly, anyway, and so any such change in register is utterly undetectable. Ruby follows this particular example with “Did anyone understand any of that?”, to which the children on the morning I attended the performance quite confidently replied, “No!”

Despite the fact that the desired effect would not be the same amongst such a young audience, this was, evidently, intentional. Yet, this does not speak for the rest of the performance where this sort of language is used. Standing up tall, one finger in the air, talking more pronouncedly, all whilst looking at the audience — or some other dramatic physical shift of this nature — would enable children to understand, rather paradoxically, that they are not meant to understand, and this would have been better in this example. Personally, I would have simply stayed away from any such language altogether. Tone and diction are far more important than language, especially for children.

All of this being said, the two performers were very good, and their energies and physicalities were equally as fruitful. When crucial for safety, these performers are admittedly rather good at managing the children and stopping them from running down the stairs in excitement to join the bridge-building team, for example. It is more with the preemption of behaviours that this dramatic text struggles, at the conceptualisation stage. The performers use space very well, making for both dimension and an immersive feel. I will say, however, that Del Fosco lends far too much time to the front row in his interactions, particularly the front row to his right, for some reason. ‘Silliness’ is a strongpoint for these performers (the squatting and the puffing of the cheeks when trying to reassemble the crystal, the hopscotching and side-dancing, the run-jumping, the break-dancing, etc.), yet I would have liked to see more of this — again, far too much time was given to dialogue. This performance makes for some captivating and transportive imagery, and this needs to be further accentuated.

This brings me on to set (designed by Stuart Glover). The letter machine was an absolutely wonderful, if somewhat utilitarian, feature. Its usability and functionality were positively awe-inspiring, and its quirky features, most namely the ball and ramps, were equally endearing. I would just have liked to see more prominence and articulacy in its design. I could perhaps make out a bird’s nest, but there was no clear and distinct ornamentation which I felt limited the appeal and magic of the machine beyond its title and concept.

For such a large contraption there was relatively little spectacularity. Maybe some Christmas ornaments or figurines, even some extra tinsel and ribbons or some rainbow glitter, could have heightened the visual effect amongst the children. However, this set requires utility over beauty, and so this is less of an issue. Its function as a collection point for letters to Santa is most magical alone. I will say, though, that the machine is very ill-communicated to the audience, especially the nature of the antennae on top of it — just what thoughts, and whose thoughts, for that matter, are translated into letters? As for lighting (also designed by Stuart Glover), this could be a lot more dynamic and a lot sharper in its focus but was sufficient. The blue wash was evocative alone to transport us to an icy cave, if a little too simplistic. Costume (designed by Jacqui Livingston), however, was just right.

One final note on music. I found music to be extremely incongruous with this performance. Not only did it lack a sense of coherency and theme, but it also made use of far too many genres, from pop music to techno club music. This was not in any way befitting of a performance for children, nor was it very Christmassy.

Overall, this performance is definitely very enjoyable. It demonstrates successful imagination and contains some excitable features. It is definitely strong in both its concept and design. However, a lot more thought needs to go into tailoring the script for the minds of the very young. Not only does the performance need to do this to make for a more orderly spectatorship but mainly for comprehensibility. Similarly, performers could also be better equipped with tactics to manage a young audience’s focus.

“Conceptually, a wonderful, intriguing and pretty performance for young children; just in need of more tailoring insofar as communication.”

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