Nine Lessons and Carols: Stories for a Long Winter was devised during the second lockdown by playwright Chris Bush (Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Pericles), the Almeida’s associate director Rebecca Frecknall (Summer and Smoke, The Duchess of Malfi) and a company of performers who between them have appeared in many of the latest stage mega hits (Naana Agyei-Ampadu in Fairview, Katie Brayben in Girl From the North Country, Luke Thallon in Leopoldstadt – the list goes on).
Nine Lessons and Carols at the Almeida. Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Elliot Levey, Toheeb Jimoh, Luke Thallon, Katie Brayben. Photo: Helen Murray
Despite the title, Nine Lessons and Carols is not remotely religious, nor is it festive. According to the show description, it’s also ‘not a corona play’. True, the words ‘coronavirus’, ‘Covid-19’ and ‘pandemic’ are never explicitly uttered, but the snippets of standalone scenes the play presents us with over the course of its 90-minute run deftly depict the 2020 we’ve collectively lived, cried and – when possible – laughed through, making it one of the first great plays about the pandemic and a relic of a year that’s seen us reassess our priorities and partake in the same short-lived crazes. (Anyone still nurturing their sourdough starter kit? Us neither.)
On a bare wooden stage, framed with piles of neatly stacked firewood, we’re led through a folkloric fable before being plunged into the present day. Short snapshots of scenarios unfold, some gut-wrenching, some satirical, some dystopian.
We meet a man baking banana bread to distract himself from grief. We peer in upon a group of advertisers in a boardroom, planning their next outlandish Christmas campaign. We listen to a couple arguing over whether the importance of fighting for equality outweighs the risks of attending a Black Lives Matter protest. We see a father in the early throes of dementia and a troubled man who has unintentionally adopted a dog. In perhaps the most cliché-exposing scene of all, we hear from a delivery driver, who takes us through the trends of lockdown orders, borough by borough, touching on the extreme strains and tough targets placed on those delivering the goods.
Nine Lessons and Carols at the Almeida. Luke Thallon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Katie Brayben, Maimuna Memon. Photo: Helen Murray
Each scene builds up to its own climax, and several cajole us with matters light and familiar before descending into something altogether darker. Only the opening fable and the return to it in a later scene – a device to connect it to the present – seem out of place; both simultaneously drawn-out and a little underdeveloped. Still, the fable justifies the a cappella pop-folk interludes, performed on guitar by Maimuna Memon and harmonised by the rest of the cast, which together amount to a raw and moving highlight of the production.
Advocating one performance over another would discredit the fact this piece is delivered by a six-strong cast of talented, musical performers working as a close-knit collective, against the odds (and in the face of social-distancing measures), to pull it off. Watching them orbit one another like magnets, you can imagine the fun that was had devising the more humorous scenes.
Nine Lessons and Carols is a satirical, heart-wrenching, song-filled synopsis of the year none of us saw coming.
Nine Lessons and Carols will also be available to stream from home on Tuesday 15 December, 7:30pm. Tickets: £10 - £25
|What||Nine Lessons and Carols, Almeida Theatre review|
|Where||Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Angel (underground)|
03 Dec 20 – 09 Jan 21, Performances at 7:30PM with additional 2:30PM matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays
|Price||£20 - £35|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|