Production company Peepolykus has a stiff task to overhaul the brilliance of the Playhouse’s previous Chrstimas offering, The 39 Steps. Combining sterling story-telling, top-hole performances and a spiffing dash of Christmas cheer, last year’s effort was almost the perfect festive play.
Look up the road and the rock’n’roll panto is enjoying a typically riotous run at the Playhouse’s sister theatre, the Everyman. So No Wise Men has to pull out the stuff in it’s not to pale in comparison.
The portents were good – the company has a strong history and a mash-up of various Christmas archetypes and parables seemed spot on. It’s fairly clear from the outset that we’re going to get a modern riff on A Christmas Carol. But we also get another dollop of Dickens’ Oliver Twist via a smidge of It’s A Wonderful Life, a splosh of A Matter of Life and Death and nip of Hans Christian Anderson. A rich, heady mix.
No Wise Men can be summed up as ‘berk finds redemption at Christmas’, which is as time-worn a genre as ‘boy finds girl…’ but there’s so much more poured into the mixture that to reduce it to its constituent parts is to do it a disservice.
No Wise Men also has detours in time and space – and, arguably, reality itself when we wander into a quasi-literary territory – that bend boundaries and the fourth wall, and crash straight through them in some cases.
Song and dance routines are knowing and amusing or delicate and rather lovely by turn, with a right-old cockney knees-up in a boozer taking the cake.
Meanwhile the star turns of the night come from Milo Twomey and Helen Carter and Bill Sykes and Nancy ciphers respectively, the former enjoying a hilarious relationship with his dog, Bullseye, and the latter exercising her ‘small pleasures’ in an amusing recurring gag.
Also of particular note is Javier Marzen in the role of mysterious gentleman and fairy godmother Murray. His role changes, from enigmatic foreign gent to out-and-out panto dame, are carried off with aplomb and his magic tricks were another highlight in the production.
A touching and well-played concluding scene just about brought together all the various strands and loose ends, but it was often a confusing journey that didn’t always hold up.
The first act seems to take ages to get going, setting up protagonist Jack (co-writer John Nicholson) as a nasty piece of work. Except he’s not, not really. He’s just a dick, and pretty much remains so all the way through. The other characters make little impression either, leaving the house-bound set feeling uncomfortably like a broad 90s sitcom or weak farce.
The accompanying programme promises madcap thrills, but No Wise Men waits far too long to unveil them. When they come and No Wise Men shrugs off its earthly shackles and detours into fantasy, dream and altered reality, it’s superbly entertaining, and there is a touching element to the denouement.
Bringing so many elements together in what felt like a rushed conclusion only just worked, which seemed like dodgy pacing given the production’s length and the sedentary pace of the opening act.
Which is rather a shame, because No Wise Men brings songs, humour, wit and legerdemain to the table in spades, courtesy of a talented cast, mind-boggling set work and a heart in the right place.
That it was a little tough to digest doesn’t mean there wasn’t an impressive spread at this festive Victorian feast.
No Wise Men
Until 15 January