Writing a 21st century family Christmas musical isn’t easy. Performed at the TPS Studio, Petersfield, Operation Santa weaves together the worlds of business, political injustice, fake news and Yuletide magic into a dramatic, touching and hilarious show. S&C’s own Jackie Green tells us more.
Exploring real life issues for all ages through theatre is something I feel passionate about. The two talented writers (musical director Daf Hughes and comedy writer Will Ing) obviously feel the same. In the words of my 10-year-old grandson, it was the best show he’d ever seen because it wasn’t all ‘fairytales and ballgowns but was about real stuff’. I agree. Operation Santa highlights important, topical content that children care about in a family friendly show full of humour, fantastic original music and characters that stay with you long after the curtains close.
When news breaks that Father Christmas is unable to work due to a stress related illness, 12-year-old Emily Watson suspects a cover up. Together with 10-year-old Henry Fowler, she forms the protest group ELF and forges an unlikely partnership with Charlie Hackett, a junior TV researcher desperate to make the big time. Their search for truth and justice leads them into a very grown up world of political corruption, fake news and possibly even to the Big Man of Christmas himself.
A talented cast of adults and children reveal the twists and turns of a dastardly political plot to meddle, manipulate and modernise. With 13 brilliant original songs and a supersonic flying machine, Operation Santa is a thoughtful Christmas musical for the modern media age.
The performance has a perfect mix of lyrics that hit all the right emotional buttons partnered with a completely original musical score worthy of the West End stage. Operation Santa opens with a crowd pleasing ensemble number ‘Christmas Day’ followed by ‘Respectively Speaking’ which introduces the mean-spirited boss, Richard Dimley (Tony Johnson) a cruelly observed example of every workplace bully I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. The lively ‘Blitzen Bullet’ rock number has the audience’s feet tapping and ‘This Christmas’ and ‘If She Were Mine’ are hugely emotional ballads performed with real truth by Sheila Fowler (Kerry McMahon) and our hugely likeable hero Charlie Hackett (Aaron Hayes). How Ed Dimley (Lucas Bradshaw) didn’t break a limb during his rendition of ‘The Truth’ however was a minor miracle. His hilarious performance was a mix of the self-importance of David Brent and the physical comedy of the great Norman Wisdom.
‘Civil Disobedience’ reminded me of the opening of Les Miserables, a real flag-waving call to arms, a brilliantly written song for the protest group, led by Emily Watson (played by the wonderfully alarming but hugely impressive Maisy Wallace) who has a strong voice, is word perfect and would give Greta Thunberg a good run for her money. ‘It’s Your Fault’, a duet from parents Sheila and Michael Fowler (Kerry and John Paul McCrohon), dramatizes every parent’s guilt and terrible pain over a missing child. Henry Fowler’s (Christopher McCrohon’s) beautifully crafted solo ‘Anymore’ addresses his loss of faith in Father Christmas (Tony Dart) and almost broke my heart with the sincerity of the delivery. For such a young boy he has a marvellously mature presence. ‘Just In Case’ Carly (Isabelle Simpson) and the Ensemble illustrate emotions every child will recognise while writing their Christmas list to Santa. The lyrics are both poignant and memorable. A catchy tune that my boys really liked. Every good musical needs a believable villain and Sir Philip Hunt (Steve Cliff) was exactly that, singing ‘Children’ which had my youngest boy shrinking back in his seat but equally laughing out loud at some very funny lines.
Operation Santa retained the magic we expect of Christmas with the realism of today; enough irony to keep the adults laughing out loud but enough sparkle and hero-and-villain action to keep my two boys riveted. The cast, especially Maisy Wallace and Christopher McCrohon, the two young leads, performed out of their boots and were word perfect. The energy was faultless and all the fully formed character parts were portrayed with real enthusiasm. A sprinkle of laugh out loud lines kept the tone light even when the plot wasn’t.
This production was full-on entertainment even on such a small stage with minimal set and basic technology because it had buckets of real talent, in the writing, musical direction and performances. If this transfers, as I suspect it will, to a west end stage, bigger budget and has the well-deserved benefit of a full live orchestra, it is a blockbuster Disney would sign up in a flash. Although I must say it’s so versatile that it works equally as well in a school or community theatre setting.
We see many Netflix animations transfer to theatre but I bet Santa’s whiskers that this musical is more than capable of flipping it the other way. The musical score and lyrics were some of the best I’ve seen for years. The lazy use of repeated pop songs for new shows annoy me. This is a score full of brilliantly written original work and it shines through in spades. Fresh and topical. A real treat. A musical that is certainly not just for Christmas!