Review by Rosie Holmes
Love Actually, one of the most popular festive films in recent years, is 20 years’ old this year. Even though that makes me feel terribly old, and amazed at how fast time passes, it remains one of my very favourite films. Its creator, Richard Curtis, certainly knows the pull the film still has and has put together what he has labelled ‘the ultimate Christmas variety show’ with Christmas Actually, promising an array of comedy, music, stories and stars. So ready for a festive evening, I was keen to see if this show would actually deliver on its promise.
In short, maybe not. There was definitely festive cheer, music and stories, but a lack of stars and comedy. The show was hosted by Jayde Adams, comedienne and former Strictly star, as well as Sanjeev Bhaskar, star of The Kumars at No. 42. Unfortunately, their pairing seemed a little awkward, despite both being undoubtedly talented, having seen them perform in other shows and programmes. Adding to this awkwardness is their reading of a script from lecterns, not really giving the impression of a professional, big budget show with one of the UK’s most prolific screenwriters at its helm.
The show features an ensemble cast who make appearances to tell a variety of Christmas stories, including those of the WW1 truce on Christmas Day and of Live Aid, and many more. All are engaging stories and one or two were new to me, though it’s a shame that some of the most emotive parts of those stories are on screen via video clips. The fun of some of the skits, such as Dickens’ Christmas Carol in 5 minutes and the chat GPT generated nativity, both great ideas, were again slightly ruined by the existence of visible scripts, not allowing for any chaos that often makes the audience feel involved and ‘in on the joke’ at many festive shows such as pantomimes.
The night was a little slow-moving, but it did pick up with a rather funny ‘12 Days of Christmas’ skit, involving all of the cast, and a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, made all the more poignant by his recent passing. However, the standout for me was Miriam Teak-Lee’s performances. A star of the West End, Teak-Lee sang a multitude of Christmas songs, showcasing her wonderful voice. We were treated to a rendition of ‘Christmas is All Around Me’, one for the Love Actually fans as well, and a medley of Christmas hits, sadly not featuring East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ (it's my favourite song!). There’s no doubt we were in safe hands when she was on stage. The highlight of the evening was a sing along to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas’, with Teak-Lee really hitting those high notes. The Love Actually cast appeared on screen holding the lyrics and, for the first time during the evening, there was a buzz in the previously quite sedate audience. It’s a shame, with the surge in energy, that this was the ending of the show.
Light design by Ben Rogers and projection design by Duncan McLean proved very effective. Transforming the Royal Festival Hall’s vast stage into a Winter Wonderland, a WW1 trench, showing the story of the Boy the Mole and the Fox, creating an eerie atmosphere for a ghost story and bringing us famous faces on the large circular screen.
Billed as the “Ultimate Christmas Variety Show” and curated by the creator of one of our most loved festive films, Christmas Actually has a lot to live up to, and unfortunately it didn’t meet my admittedly high expectations. I was hoping for a bit more comedy and some stars, but, filled with sentimentalism, it was an enjoyable night. I left feeling Christmassy and it was all in support of Comic Relief, a noble cause reminding us that Christmas is the season of goodwill to all.
Christmas Actually plays at Southbank Centre until 11thDecember, tickets can be purchased here - Christmas Actually (southbankcentre.co.uk)
You can also donate £5 to Comic Relief by texting GIVE to 70205
Photos by Matt Humphrey