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BWW Review: NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS, Almeida Theatre

The Almeida returns with a socially-distanced set of sketches and songs for our times

BWW Review: NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS, Almeida Theatre

BWW Review: NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS, Almeida Theatre

With all the Christmas shows beginning to open, it is refreshing to see the Almeida come back with something a little different: a play with songs about loss and connection. Co-created by writer Chris Bush, director Rebecca Frecknall, and the six-strong cast, Nine Lessons and Carols is far from your cosy festive treat, instead opting to address situations with black comedy and an air of gloom sprinkled with sweetness.

The 90-minute show is episodic, and some sections inevitably work better than others. The set is a warm wall of wood, giving a sense of community and the outdoors. Musical accompaniment from a guitar, a piano, a squeezebox give some shape and sense to the mood.

We all have thorns, we are told: in our mouths, lungs, heads and hearts. They make us quiet, lonely, and unable to settle. That is what Nine Lessons and Carols is mainly about. There are moments between couples, siblings, and generations. An allotment grows from love; a widower (played by Luke Thallon) attempts to navigate recipes.

Some sketches are more political than personal: a BLM protest; the life of a delivery driver (played by Toheeb Jimon) on minimum wage. The proverbial black dog of depression afflicts a young man (played by Elliot Levey) who finds a friend. We watch people care, escape, and endure.

I found the structure of the piece made it a handful of powerful moments punctuated by occasional filler. The music (composed and largely performed by Maimuna Memon, with Katie Brayben and Naana Agyei-Ampadu) was beautifully done but I would have welcomed more song and less conversation. The closing number in particular, a moving chorus of living, was particularly effective.

The socially-distanced Almeida auditorium gives a conspiratorial intimacy in which we feel we are seated around a fireside or peeping through a finely frosted window.

The cast, we are told by the theatre's artistic director, Rupert Goold, in a friendly preamble, are regularly tested for infection in these strange times. Despite all this, they seem delighted to be back, and the performances are all excellent.

Nine Lessons and Carols is a brave attempt to engage live audiences and bring us back together in glimpses of everyday humanity.

Nine Lessons and Carols is at the Almeida until 9 January, with a streamed performance on 15 December

Photo credit: Helen Murray

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