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A first-of-its-kind festive show at the iconic art gallery

Review: PICTURE PERFECT CHRISTMAS SHOW, National Gallery Review: PICTURE PERFECT CHRISTMAS SHOW, National Gallery Ever wanted to step inside the world of one of the National Gallery's paintings? Immersive theatre company Boo Productions may have the answer.

In what is surprisingly the gallery's first time hosting theatre, the somewhat blandly titled Picture Perfect Christmas Show takes as its inspiration the Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp's idyllic oil snowscapes. Writer-director Francesca Renèe Reid and composer Edward Court pluck their protagonists, the steadfastly heroic Frederik (Ciarán McCormack) and Maaike (Elizabeth Coverdale), from the foreground of Avercamp's wintry village scenes, and use them to create an original, pantomime-influenced Christmas fairytale.

Avercamp rarely left his hometown, and thus his work has a limited range of subject matter, often depicting ice skaters, a colourful range of townsfolk gliding around a naturally frozen lake beneath a rose-coloured castle. Fittingly, this show shines most when it comes to the design elements, making the most of limited space in an auditorium below the gallery's Sainsbury Wing.

The costumes are a cut above what one expects from a small-scale children's show, with jewel-toned winter cloaks that seem to have jumped right out of a village from the Dutch Golden Age, and highly textured outfits for the various animal characters that resist Halloween costume cliché. Jill Wilson's sets fulfil the show's promise of immersion into Avercamp's world, with set pieces revolving between the warm, provincial town and the icy blue of the forest, and the lighting, designed by George Elisha and Alan Bishop, casts the stage in a wash of soft blue and white, emulating the cosy haze of the wintry oil paintings.

After a charming set of interactions with villagers that can almost be matched directly to figures from Avercamp's paintings, the real plot begins. Due to a slightly contrived set of circumstances, our Hansel and Gretel-esque heroes Frederik and Maaike must enter the wintry forest at the edge of their town and save Christmas (or 'season's greetings day') from the clutches of the personified icicle Engelberg (played with scene-stealing physical comedy by Richard Holborn in an eye-catching, silvery blue doublet and hose ensemble).

It is here that the show perhaps loses some of its originality. Once we're no longer in the immediate world of Avercamp's painting, the writing resorts to more familiar pantomime tropes, and cannot resist a few boos and hisses and cries of "Behind you!". Moreover, it is unfortunate how often the writing of the villainous Engelberg veers into problematic queer-coding reminiscent of early Disney antagonists, though this is perhaps redeemed by the character getting a partially happy ending.

Nevertheless, there are still things for the whole family to admire here. Individual lines in the script remain punchy even as the story loses some of its freshness (Engelberg's "it's giving Arctic" sticks particularly in the mind), and the songs are a pastiche of all that is good about musicals written for children without being too monotonously joyful, with thoughtfully placed character leitmotifs and occasional live flute accompaniment by Coverdale as Maaike.

Particularly well done are the trio of musical numbers performed by the forest animals encountered by the heroes - a squirrel, badger and stag. These provide inspiring child-friendly didacticism about bravery, self-restraint, and resilience, but are never excessively preachy, and each song manages to stand out such that the audience may not notice that we've essentially seen the same scene three times. Though the plot of this fable may be confused and hackneyed at times, its moral message remains intact.

Picture Perfect Christmas Show occasionally struggles with what exactly it wants to be, and ends up somewhere in between pantomime, fairytale, and musical theatre, without ever really capitalising on the promise of an immersive show based on visual art. However, while the overall artistic vision is not entirely delivered, the arguably more important element of festive joy is conveyed in spades, and as an accompaniment to a day out in the National Gallery, Picture Perfect Christmas Show is more than ideal.

Picture Perfect Christmas Show is at the National Gallery until 23 December

Image credit: Holly Hooper.

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Clementine (she/her) has loved theatre ever since she first heard the West Side Story original cast album, but she found her real passion for criticism when she began reviewing plays and films for ... (read more about this author)

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