'Once upon a Christmas' review or 'Has anyone got ad block?'

'Once upon a Christmas', Look Left Look Right
Covent Garden, Friday 22 December 2013
Written for Culture Wars

There are little pockets of magic in this Christmas promenade show, which will make you feel young, naive and hopeful; beautifully crafted scenes that encourage you to look deep inside yourself and find something kind and pure. But there are also moments when it feels like the adverts have come on, the remote control is bust – and there is nothing you can do but sit and suffer in silence.

The last two shows by Look Left Look Right (both directed by Mimi Poskitt and written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons) have left me feeling a little uncomfortable.  'Above and Beyond' took place in the 5 star Corinthia Hotel and was the end-product of an artist-in-residence competition. The show was clever and occasionally enchanting but it also felt artistically compromised. We were shown some lovely snippets of theatre but, above all, we received a stellar tour of a 5 star venue.

This latest show, as sparky and imaginative as it is in places, feels similarly compromised. The program reads: 'Look Left Look Right and Covent Garden present Once Upon a Christmas' and it's hard to say where the advert ends and the artistic endeavor begins. Some of the advertising is understandable and well integrated, but other moments feel shoe-horned in and seriously threaten the integrity and power of this production. 

The self-contained opening is cheeky and fairly convincing. A seriously narked Head Elf informs us that Cinderella and Prince Charming are on the verge of breaking up and it's up to us to reunite them and save Christmas! I'm not sure what cynics would make of this piece – the show depends on romantic and optimistic audience members – but my companion and I are Disney-loving saps, so jumped into gear easily and happily.

The audience is split up and sent on a Disney-flecked tour of Covent Garden, lit up by Joanna Scother's witty and romantic costumes. We meet Snow White, the Ugly Sisters and animals stuck half way between man and creature, whiskers twitching on their faces or tails swishing from beneath their coats. We gossip with princes, take part in magic spells and prepare lonely sisters for their big dates.  

We’re led through suit stores, chocolate shops and various other retailers throughout Covent Garden. If I'm being generous, I could say it's charming that these shops agreed to take part. But it is also rather odd to be paraded around shops throughout the production, just at the height of the Christmas shopping season. Commercialism and theatricality nestle side by side in an uncomfortable fashion. 

Some of the encounters are whacky and engaging enough to quell such misgivings – but there was one particularly grating scene which threatened to break the spell completely. Deep into my adventure, following a moving encounter with a heart-broken Buttons, I am led to a pumpkin seller who delivers a potted summary of the history of Covent Garden. I could practically see the show's proposal being written in front of my eyes. It made me feel silly for 'falling for' the rest of the show.

Just as I'm starting to harden against the piece, I'm whisked off in a carriage and cheerfully heckled by members of the public. In fact, it's the Covent Garden crowd that lights up this show and softens it around the edges. As I wandered about the street with a beautifully-dressed Snow White, little girls hovered excitedly in the distance – and as I took my carriage ride, a number of people wished me happiness and earnestly implored me to get married. There's magic to be found out there; maybe we'd have felt it more strongly if we'd spent a little less time touring the shops of Covent Garden.


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