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The Thursford Christmas Spectacular

The Thursford Christmas Spectacular

My first thought when invited to attend The Thursford Christmas Spectacular was…can it really be that spectacular? Some of the very worst things describe themselves with a superlative. So I was curious.

But over the years I had heard good reports about Thursford from a few acquaintances who spoke of how extraordinary it was, how difficult it was to get tickets and how they would love to go again. I was curious.

The Thursford Collection, in a very rural Norfolk setting, was developed by a farmer with a love of traction engines and other farming machinery. Over the years the site has created special and rather fine buildings to house this collection, together with related shops and eateries. In 1977 John Cushing – the show’s producer and director –  had the idea to put on a Christmas show and the Spectacular was born.

It now runs from early November until Christmas, with, notably, booking for the next year starting just before this year’s show ends its run.

It’s a very big show in all sorts of ways.

The auditorium is situated in one of the huge exhibition halls – some of the traction engines, paintwork gleaming, brasswork glistening in the Christmas lights, at its edge. A beautiful fairground carousel (used sparingly in the show) is in the corner, leading the eye directly to the extraordinarily wide but relatively shallow stage.

That sort of stage could be a problem but Thursford does not do things by halves. The cast includes 55 singers and 22 dancers. An orchestra of 28 musicians occupies the stage throughout the second half of the show – with enough room for the rest of the company!

For those expecting ‘The First Noel’ as a starter there is a surprise when two pipers in full rig enter from the rear of the auditorium to ensure a lively start. What follows is a variety show featuring song, dance, song and dance, orchestral pieces and  speciality acts – a comedian, jugglers, acrobats, the Thursford Wurlitzer organ and a cyr wheel artist. The show’s programme lists no less than 33 items in two acts – all topped off by an extraordinary and totally unexpected event during the finale.

The songs are a mix of carols, songs from the shows and others. The carols were beautifully arranged and, like other songs put into medleys – nothing lasted too long, which I think was a good judgement. The quality of singing and presentation is very,very good and the singers’ visits to the auditorium in procession for the carols make this something special. I especially liked the a cappella rendering of I Want to Hold Your Hand and very funny Christmas Can-Can but all of the singing is top rate.

As with the singers, choreographer, Tracey Iliffe makes maximum use of her very talented girl dancers who perform some numbers as a troupe and others with the singers – numbers from It’s De-Lovely (100% showgirl, complete with fans – a real challenge) and an exotic, oriental, interpretation of Bolero impressively done.

Those looking for songs from the West End won’t be disappointed…Blow Gabriel Blow, Be My Guest, All That Jazz, Lambeth Walk and White Christmas all feature as big production numbers with all hands on deck to wonderful effect!

I also have to make mention of the monologues, Toast (about a Duchess of Devonshire’s joyous discovery of electric toasters and sliced bread) and the drunken Christmas Cake Recipe. Funny and well done.

Not forgetting the orchestra, brilliantly led by Ben Ellin. Hidden and working hard behind the scenes in the first act but allowed to join the party for the second, Duelling Violins and Dominique being highlights for me. And it was a rare treat and a privilege to be able to hear and see Phil Kelsall play the Wurlitzer organ.

Deep breath … as if that were not enough the whole is interspersed with other, speciality acts. Delfina and Bartek show their acrobatic skill; I felt their second set, performed with no equipment at all and relying simply on counterbalance was beautiful and breathtaking – as the many gasps from the audience proved. Bibi and Bichu juggle fast and furious to Perpetuum Mobile and Billy George demostrates huge skill on the cyr wheel – which had to be seen to be believed.

Completing the picture is Kev Orkian, who I could write a whole review about. An Armenian comedian Kev  is, simply, a very funny man. Playing on his underdog ‘immigrant’ status – but never demeaning himself for a cheap laugh – Kev was a real treat. Clever, with the ability to get the audience on his side almost as soon as he took the stage, he was also compere. And, a very accomplished pianist, Kev also uses this to fine effect – I loved his attempt to copy the Elton John scratched CD the ‘management’ had given him to learn from and the ‘missing page of music’ gag was priceless!

The whole show was sumptuously costumed (commendations to the costume department and wardrobe staff – with all those costume changes backstage must be so busy!), well-lit with an excellent sound balance between the orchestra and the singers (not always the case in even the best West-End productions).

What a show!

Your correspondent is pleased to report that The Thursford Christmas Spectacular is indeed nothing less than…spectacular.