thu 29/02/2024

Nine Lessons and Carols, Almeida Theatre review – spiky portrayal of a world turned upside down | reviews, news & interviews

Nine Lessons and Carols, Almeida Theatre review – spiky portrayal of a world turned upside down

Nine Lessons and Carols, Almeida Theatre review – spiky portrayal of a world turned upside down

Skilfully interwoven accounts of a life in which togetherness is forbidden

No Zoom at the Inn: The cast presents both comic and tragic reflections on our fractured lives

How do you create a secular version of the Nine Lessons and Carols? The original can feel like a formulaic trot through tunes and stories as stale as fossilised mince-pies. Yet it helps to remember that in essence it reflects on the story of a world suddenly turned upside down; a story of refugees, single motherhood, the kindness and cruelty of strangers, and the eternal curveballs that life can throw.

It's completely fitting then that Rebecca Frecknall’s swiftly constructed response to the year of Covid derives its spiky power from the fact that it too portrays a world suddenly turned upside down. In a mark of our times Frecknall and the playwright Chris Bush started to put the script together at the end of October, and days later began to audition the actors over Zoom, compressing a process that would often take months into weeks. The result is a chance to reflect together on the comedies and tragedies of a world in which that headline-grabbing microbe – through its contamination of togetherness – has shattered the essence of what creates both ourselves and our society.

On a bare circular stage, behind which designer Tom Scutt has arranged chopped firewood along the Almeida's walls as a primitive backdrop, seven actors present contrasting accounts of a life lived under lockdown. The C-word is never mentioned, but it is always there: in the socially-distanced exchanges, in the sense of human fragility in the presence of constant uncertainty, in the undertones of grief whether for specific individuals or for a whole way of living.

That’s not to say that it isn’t often very funny. After a quasi-mythological start, in which humans evolve from living happily alone to feeling the pain of loneliness in the form of a thorn between their shoulder-blades, we fast forward to 2020. One of the most successful early monologues features Katie Brayben as a defiant contrarian revelling in her loneliness: “Burn your bra…burn your birth certificate…burn your neighbours’ houses down…ambush a Deliveroo driver and ride his moped through an Amazon warehouse…Piss down the side of the Shard!”

There’s a Caryl Churchill-style ellipsis to the way in which the scenes are executed and interwoven. One moment you’re listening to the revealing and often amusing catalogue of tasks carried out by Toheeb Jimoh’s delivery boy “Dim Sum to Highgate dinner-parties….eco-friendly sex toys to lesbians in Herne Hill… sexts to Jess who thinks I’m a paramedic…she texts me every Thursday to say she’s clapping for me”. Another you’re watching a woman who’s captivated by the trend of people taking off across the world in camper-vans telling her long-term partner that she wants to do the same thing, but without him.

The evening is at its best when it takes a common trope of lockdown and then twists it. The ever-excellent Elliot Levey begins one scene talking us through the challenge of making banana bread. This feels amusing enough, if a little obvious, until you realise that he is talking to his dead partner, so that what seems like gentle comedy suddenly becomes a profound expression of grief. At a different point Luke Thallon talks about rescuing an abandoned dog that proves to be “not great with…people…other dogs…squirrels…sunlight…rain…the dark…” and we all laugh, until he starts to disintegrate, and we perceive that the monologue is about something quite different.

Perhaps inevitably there are some elements to the evening that work better than others. There’s a recurrent brainstorming session for the perfect Christmas ad, which I suspect would work better for audience members who’ve had a couple of glasses of mulled wine. But there is extraordinary power in certain scenes too, not least in the tale of bereavement potently delivered by Naana Agyei-Ampadu that means her own life will never move on from this most modern of plague years.

Director Frecknall’s most resonant success has been with her staging of Summer and Smoke, not least because of its astonishing backdrop of upright pianos with the fronts removed so that their strings resonated and jangled to amplify the emotions of the central character. Here, for the “carols” element, there is simply one upright piano – front intact – and a guitar to accompany the gentle folk-style songs written and partly performed by Maimuna Memon (above).

Singing, of course, has become one of the great threatened activities of this year, and it’s a testament both to Memon’s compositional powers and the chemistry of the cast that when they perform the songs they feel like a simultaneously simple and profound expression of humanity. This, combined with the light that comes beaming through the logs at the end means that you leave the theatre feeling, if not necessarily consoled, marginally more optimistic about the future than you did when you first entered.


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