Advent activity #20

Today’s activity is one we had coincidentally already planned to do anyway, and it is WATCH CHRISTMASSY FILMS. We are saving Daiteiden no yoru ni and It’s A Wonderful Life for the 24th because that is when they are both set, so today we will be choosing between Last Christmas, which was fairly universally panned last year but which seems likely to hit about the right sort of note for 2020; Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey which you will find on Netflix and two Agatha Christies, because Agatha Christies are always Christmassy: the never-bettered 1980 Angela Lansbury/Elizabeth Taylor version of The Mirror Crack’d (look at that cast!) and the 1945 adaptation of And Then There Were None which I have never seen but which will certainly be the spookiest of all, and so should be saved for last.

We might also watch Bernard and the Genie, which is what happens when Richard Curtis makes a good Christmas film instead of a godawful one. It’s hard to find, but some thoughtful soul has posted the whole thing on YouTube.

We won’t be watching Hamilton because along with Spike Lee/David Byrne’s American Utopia we’ve already watched it too many times during lockdown, but I will watch, and so should you, this video of Leslie Odom Jr, aka Aaron Burr, and his gorgeous version of O Holy Night.

Advent activity #5

I’m going to let you interpret today’s instruction, GET NUTCRACKER, in whichever way you choose. Should you happen to own a decorative Christmas ornament in the shape of a toy soldier from the ballet then you will be able to hit the nail squarely on the head, but in the unlikely event that you don’t, you could:

  1. Get your actual honest-to-god nutcracker from the kitchen drawer and use it to crack some nuts
  2. Get the ballet on DVD, or stream it, or, from December 11, stream it live from the New York City Ballet
  3. Get coconut liqueur, cognac, lemon juce, triple sec, pineapple juice, some ice and a strong constitution and mix yourself this slightly terrifying-sounding drink

However you choose to celebrate Nutcracker Day, as December 5 will henceforth be known in our house, you must for sure begin by listening to Pentatonix, last seen gracing these pages two years ago with That’s Christmas To Me, perform this adorable version of the Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy:

Advent song for December 5: Gaudete

Today I’m starting with the good news, because it’s the most important bit: last night I went on an outing with my “Acting For Beginners” class to see Little Miss Burden at the Bunker Theatre on Southwark Street, which we mainly chose because it’s conveniently located, the tickets were affordable and they could seat us all. But I’m so glad we picked it because it’s one of the most thrilling, hilarious, heartbreaking and beautiful pieces of theatre I can remember seeing: gorgeously written, produced and performed and just an all-round treat. It runs until December 21 and if you are in London between now and then YOU HAVE TO GO.

Rejoice, rejoice, as Steeleye Span would say. I went to see them about five years ago and they are still dazzling, but although there are live performances of their a capella Christmas classic available on YouTube, nothing quite matches the icy perfection of the original 1972 recording.

Bram Stoker and the Lyceum Theatre

Bram Stoker

Last Friday was the hundredth anniversary of Bram Stoker’s death, and to mark the occasion the Dracula Society (I know, I had no idea either) held a celebratory event at the Lyceum Theatre, to which I was lucky enough to be invited as a representative of The Public Reviews, a website which does what it says on the tin.

It all lasted about an hour, and most of that was people standing around drinking, so I had to be creative in order to get a thousand words out of it, but it was worth it because now I really want to re-watch all the old Dracula films, and I can’t think of a better way of spending what promises to be another wet weekend.

The piece is here.

The Phantom of the Opera: a love story

Festive frivolities have played havoc with my body clock, so I find myself wide awake at 6.30am on a Sunday while the beloved snoozes peacefully next door. I like this time of day, especially at the weekend: I like being awake when nobody else is and I like the idea that the day still holds unlimited possibilities. Mostly, I just like that it’s quiet, because on a crowded estate full of kids and drug dealers it’s almost never quiet. Even my typing sounds loud, and each time a car passes outside on the main road I can hear it from a long way away and I have time to wonder who’s in it, and where they might be going at this unlikely hour.

Anyway, being awake when I don’t need to be gives me the chance to write a post which has been percolating for months, or maybe years. I’ve shared my theory about The Phantom of the Opera at dinner parties and seen eyes glaze over and people quietly excuse themselves to go and hide in the bathroom until I’ve finished, so I think it’s only fair to bring it to a wider audience. If you find your attention wandering before I get to the end I suggest you go and read a book instead.

Put simply, the theory is this: the really interesting love story in the musical version of The Phantom of the Opera is not the story of the Phantom and Christine Daaé, but the story of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman. There are some obvious parallels: genius composer with an unprepossessing appearance falls in love with beautiful young singer for whom he holds an unexpected fascination. She is in his power for a while, but ultimately they must part.

When the Phantom discovers that he has a rival for Christime’s affections he laments:

He was bound to love you
When he heard you sing

which I think is about as close to a personal declaration of love from the composer to his leading lady as you can get.

In the original novel there is no suggestion that Christine loves the Phantom; she is frightened of him and desperate to escape his clutches and return to her true love, Raoul. The musical is much more ambiguous – compare and contrast publicity images for an early film adaptation of the book:

Scary phantom

And the stage show:

Sexy phantom

I think that when Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote The Phantom of the Opera what he was really writing was history’s most extravagant love letter. In Love Never Dies, the follow-up, Christine’s love for the phantom is reaffirmed, and we even learn that, contrary to the fairly well established plot of the original, he rejected her the last time around:

The Phantom

And when it was done,
Before the sun could rise
Ashamed of what I was
Afraid to see your eyes.
I stood while you slept
And whispered a goodbye.
And slipped into the dark
Beneath a moonless sky.


And I loved you,
Yes I loved you.
I’d have followed any where you led.
I woke to swear my love,
And found you gone instead.

But that’s OK, because, ahem, love never dies, you see, so it doesn’t matter that they’re not together any more:

Love never fades
Love never falters
Hearts may get broken
Love endures

So yes, perhaps the Phantom ran away before Christine could tell him she loved him, and well, perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber met his third wife before he’d strictly moved on from the second one*, but love endures. And if the Phantom and Christine really are Andrew and Sarah then there is something rather beautiful and moving about the revisiting of the story many years later. I don’t want to give away the story of Love Never Dies in case someone bought you tickets for Christmas, but you could, if you were so inclined, read it as a loving goodbye to something important, and if that’s what it is then Lloyd Webber has followed up his expensive and extended love letter to his wife with an equally extended and expensive letter of farewell to her, which is charming, and something that only he would have the chutzpah and the wherewithal to do.

*I read a brilliant story once about Andrew Lloyd Webber introducing his third and current wife, Madeline, to someone and referring to her as “Sarah” throughout the conversation. Apparently she was unfazed by it. I like to think that Sarah was his muse and his inspiration but Madeline is his soul mate so knows she needn’t worry about Sarah. It’s possible I have spent too much time considering the love life of Andrew Lloyd Webber.


A small piece of shameless self-promotion: if you haven’t already, do take a look at A long succession of thin evenings, the latest addition to my ever-expanding publishing empire. It’s a place for reviews of live music, theatre and comedy in London, and it’s an experiment in collaborative blogging. If you’d like to submit a review for publication there, let me know.

Hur hur

I saw the posters for Ben Hur Live a few months ago and became unreasonably excited at the thought of a live chariot race. I didn’t realise I’d voiced this excitement but I must have done, because on my birthday I was presented with a pair of tickets, and two weeks ago we took ourselves off to what we now have to call the O2 for what promised to be, at the very least, a spectacle.

Well, it was super. For reasons which remain unclear to me it’s performed entirely in Latin and Aramaic, with – of course! – a besuited Stewart Copeland of The Police wandering among the loincloth-clad cast narrating the action for us. This alone is enough to make it a winner in my book, frankly. Add a couple of brilliantly executed set pieces (a pitched battle at sea and a – SPOILER – crucifixion) and there’s enough here to make it worth the price of entry. The music (also by Stewart Copeland, less surprisingly), the introduction (by director Franz Abraham who, brilliantly, sounds exactly like Werner Herzog) and the clever tricks they play with a smallish amount of very versatile scenery, are other points in its favour.

Small points against are some scenes which drag slightly, a mildly racist depiction of an Arab horse breeder and the lingering suspicion that the animals involved in the production may not be enjoying it quite as much as the audience does. I can’t decide whether getting horses to perform a chariot race at the O2 is better, worse or just different from getting them to race at Ascot. But there’s a long tradition of show animals, and I’m not going to start pontificating in an uninformed way about them.

This was a five-day premiere prior to a European tour, during which the team behind the show hope to make back the £19m (£19m!) it cost to put on. It comes back to London in January, and whilst I won’t be rushing out for a ticket to see it again, I think it’s well worth seeing once. Sometimes, things are worth seeing just because they’re not like anything else.