Nine Lessons and Carols, Almeida, review: a reminder of the power of theatre and our need for it
Amid the dying embers of the year, cold, darkened theatres are sparking back to life. Among the revenants many, especially in London, are operating under the threat of renewed smothering – the words ‘Tier 3’ are enough to induce palpitations. But even if the worst happens next week, we can draw comfort from the instances of creative rebirth. What’s heartening is that we’re seeing reflections on the world we’re now in; it’s one thing (no small thing) to revive a play, but which words speak to the moment? Nine Lesson and Carols sees audiences (capped at 120 where ordinarily there could be 325) come back to the financially battered Almeida (recently assisted by a £584k Culture Recovery Fund grant). In it, playwright Chris Bush (who has just won a South Bank Sky Arts award for her Sheffield musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge) articulates the strangeness, sadness, madness and resilience that has characterised much of 2020. Whereas the Royal Court is mounting a “living newspaper” writing response to current events, this show, devised with the six principal actors and director Rebecca Frecknall, feels as if it has leapt from the subconscious. There are no cheap digs at Boris etc. The material is rooted in relatable experience, yet it’s possessed of a lyricism and a quirkiness attuned as much to the wonder of existence as to the peculiarities of daily life right now. The bare brick walls offer warmth, the circular stage a sense of ancient gathering, the surrounding piles of logs the semblance of a forest clearing: the perfect spot for a healing ritual adieu to the year, and a winter’s tale. The words we first hear, initially voiced in recorded form by veteran actress Ann Firbank (“Don’t worry – I’m not dead, I’m just in Stoke Newington!”), transport us to a “once upon a time” that’s – allegorically – close to home. A people have been cursed with thorns between their shoulder-blades; these are removed, but their descendants develop them on the inside – thorns called “loneliness”; perhaps they’re a source of strength as much as of pain. That’s a thematic through-line, but the 90-minute succession of soliloquies and songs, sketch-like exchanges and encounters doesn’t ask us to join every dot – now being a good time to let slip the old ways of getting our bearings.