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Elf The Musical: Wembley Arena (and on tour)


(seen at the 5pm performance on 22nd December 2019).

It’s the story of Buddy the Elf, an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas Eve and was adopted by the elves at the North Pole. Buddy was different, and when he grew (literally) up, he travelled to New York in search of his real father.

The much-loved movie became a stage musical, and Jon Conway and Steve Sheen bought the rights to the Arena Tour version in 2018. This London outing represents the first time the show has been seen in the Capital since 2015.

It remains tuneful, “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” and “The Story of Buddy” as cheerful ensemble numbers as any, and you’ll probably be just singing “A Christmas Song” to yourself for days after. Sadly, this version does truncate some of the more intimate songs, as they would be lost in the vast arena, but the sense of story is strong enough.

Mostly, it’s a mixed bag. Wembley Arena doesn’t lend itself to musical theatre particularly well, and neither Jon Conway as director nor Chris Baldock as choreographer really grasp the size of the stage nor how to fill it – possibly because it has to fit into far smaller spaces during the rest of the tour.

The show is played annoyingly far from the audience, right against the back wall for much of the time, and when it does come forward it is often to present circus acts (spectacular flying from one un-credited pair of aerialists, tedious and irrelevant act-two show-starter from vaulting crew The Acromaniacs), though the roller-skating park scene is neat, and the children of Pauline Quirke Academy, Dulwich fill the space nicely as required.

Main oddity was Santa’s sleigh, pulled around the arena perimeter on an undisguised hydraulic arm. Maybe ‘elf and safety didn’t allow a skirt to screen it, but it looked odd to those at ground level.

Gripes aside, Tam Ryan is an energetic Buddy, with a tight grasp of comedy and nice timing. Love interest Jovie (Kym Marsh) uses all her pop arena experience to connect with every corner of the vast space – and her voice has acquired an enjoyably mellow tone.

Shaun Williamson as Walter is a mixture of bungle and internal confusion, again, a tribute to his acting that he conveys this from such distance. Wife Emily (Bronia Pearce) overcomes the void too, but the cuts in script give her character less chance to shine than deserved.

Notes too for cops Barry Bloxham and Jonny Thomas Davies. They may have messed up a few lines, and brought some British panto slapstick to Central Park, but they did it with heart. Likewise, Darius Vapiwala as Fake Santa makes a lot of a small role, nicely judged.

Some curious directorial and staging choices, then, but the audience appeared engaged from the pre-show warm-up (Joel Hatton) to the already mentioned panto “call and response” ending. Probably not the ideal place to stage the show, and possibly an even larger budget may have helped cover a few gaps. Still, it’s an entertaining presentation and worth considering as an introduction to the musical for youngsters in particular.

3 stars.


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