The Night Before Christmas The Night Before Christmas The Mac 2023The Night Before Christmas The Mac 2023   Production Photo: Melissa Gordon

The pleasure, power and pain at the heart of Christmas fact and Christmas fiction are reflected rather beautifully at Belfast's MAC in Stephen Beggs & Simon Magill's The Night Before Christmas. Directed by Lisa May, and fittingly imbued with the sort of smart sprightliness and bizarre-but-brilliant conceptualism that one expects from her Bruiser Theatre Company, the show finds raw resonance in the purity, clarity and detail within a richly entertaining theatrical journey.

This journey, introduced through a first sighting of a Diana Ennis set that bowls this viewer over in its intricacy, is that of storyteller Noelle (Allison Harding), appropriately named after a certain Christmas carol, and the scientific mind and structural pressure emerging from the Commissioner (Sean Kearns). The former believes that she knows what Queen Talia (Katie Shortt) wants for Christmas, the latter seems intensely fixated on what he thinks the Queen needs. Already a conflict emerges – have either, in their keenness to literally make this kingdom great again, taken time to think about the wants and needs emerging from not only the Queen but the people themselves?

That's one remarkable thing about The Night Before Christmas – it successfully and intelligently projects the discomforts of even the effective aspects in both storytelling and scientific procedure. Through Fergus Wachala-Kelly's animation, and Adam Ashford's choreography, both impressive, we learn that a culture of excessive clockwork, in Noelle's case, or over-analysis, in the Commissioner's case, has diluted the enterprise of each. And weren't the Enterprises of James T Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, at least, about learning to cooperate? This lesson may, or may not, appear beyond the Commissioner, but it is not beyond Noelle – as we find when an unfortunate incident causes her to lose her thoughts and words. It's up to her friend Jem (Nuala McGowan), a magic feather (nothing like the one from Dumbo, I assure you) and a host of popular fairytale characters to point her in the right direction again, as long as the Commissioner and his assistant-with-a-conscience Fiscal (Jack Watson) don't intervene.
The Night Before Christmas The Mac 2023The Night Before Christmas The Mac 2023

  Production Photo: Melissa Gordon

It's in the fairytales, mostly, where the excellent cast, the choreography, Diana Ennis' costumes, Garth McConaghie's terrific tuneage and Wachala-Kelly's animations really come into their own. Tonally, director May gets the thought and excitement levels pretty much spot on by easing both Noelle and the audience into the fun and frolics of classic fiction with a fluffy but cheery song-and-dance from a duckling who insists you don't call him "ugly" (the versatile Daniel Rivers). A narrative detour which briefly seems to take the story into heist territory is thankfully just that – brief – as the true magic of the play is musically and poignantly resurrected through the affecting plight of the Little Match Girl (Shortt). Yet even its power doesn't prepare us for the show's undisputed peak – Three Little Pigs (Rivers, McGowan and Watson) going absolutely hog wild (I couldn't resist) as what I'd call a Piggershop Triplet. Their re-told tale of confrontation with a Big Bad Wolf (Kearns) and everyone's attempt to put aside pride in prejudice to work together in pursuit of good housekeeping (it makes sense in context, trust me) is memorably hilarious and must be seen to be believed.

While keeping the audience happy, May, along with Beggs & Magill, has also given us a Night Before Christmas which is as much about planning, showing and telling as giving and listening. It's a story of opening minds to the complexities of youthful imagination and of recognising how they can develop, for better or worse. It's a tale of control and expression, and how both can threaten to overlap to the point where neither may move forward without the most valuable of interventions. It is as much about procedure and process as it is about initiative and ingenuity - and the manner in which the story is told and the message is conveyed makes it a very special show indeed.

Simon Fallaha

The Night Before Christmas runs at The MAC, Belfast, until Sunday January 7, 2024. For more information, and tickets, click here.