Never mind The Nutcracker – the most fun I had at the theatre last Christmas, in fact all last year, was with a nut-hunting squirrel. Staged in an attic space at the Egg theatre in Bath, Kate Cross and Tim Bell’s half-hour show for under-fives let loose a puppet rodent on a brilliant Bauhaus-style set. Everything about it worked. The young audience huddled together and played around actor-puppeteer Caroline Garland who told the story with them, not to them, and the sense of alchemy you feel in great theatre-making ended with a final flourish that still makes me smile.
This Christmas, of course, that sort of show just couldn’t be staged – although the Egg does have a couple of socially distanced festive productions. But what’s this? Squirrel is back and co-starring with the hero of one of the Egg’s past Christmas plays, Snow Mouse. The Egg is one of several UK theatres to have created an online advent calendar to brighten up the month for kids who may not be able to visit a venue. It’s an inspired move, particularly as Christmas is the only time of the year that many families get to the theatre.
The calendar, starring Emile Clarke and Nikki Warwick alongside their respective rodents, stretches a story across 24 mini-adventures that last 60-90 seconds each. You can watch one a day or, like those of us who sneakily scoff ahead through a chocolate advent calendar, enjoy several in one go. It helps bring much-needed income into the theatre and provides work for creatives but also, impressively, succeeds in conveying the magic of the original Squirrel production and creating a bit more in its new format. It helps that Anisha Fields’ original set, partially reassembled for the films, is full of surprises (I’d forgotten the light switches that dangle like baubles). Marc Parrett’s squirrel and mouse puppets have plenty of character so it’s as fun to watch them get to know each other as it is to see the squirrel leave Fields’ sun-kissed world to explore Edwina Bridgeman’s icy Snow Mouse set.
Kate Cross has likened programming her theatre to gift-giving. “I love thinking about the recipient and curating an experience for them,” she wrote earlier this year, describing it as a “permanent state of Christmas shopping for the families of Bath”. Trailers and short bursts of promotional material have become a common part of theatres’ online offerings but you can sense the care, time and attention to detail that have gone into these 24 bitesize adventures.
It’s lovely to see the theatre itself – not just its stages but the foyer and the surrounding streets – in the videos. Another online advent calendar made by London’s Little Angel theatre takes a similar approach. In the video prologue to its tale The Christmas Nisse, based on the book by Patrick Nielsen, a puppet pokes its head out of the workshop next to the former temperance hall where the audience is usually packed into rows of pews. (This year, its festive show Wow! Said the Owl will be staged up the road in a roomier studio space, with one household per socially distanced mat.) In the videos, the misadventures of a cheeky Scandinavian elf will be read by actors, with a different craft activity offered each day. The videos are free to watch but as a small charity with no regular public subsidy the theatre invites donations. The theatre hopes that the video calendar will create “a new family tradition”.
Cardiff’s Sherman theatre has assembled a mixture of stories, songs and games for its advent calendar, which arrives as a daily email. The theatre has produced serialised audio performances of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, read by Sherman regular Hannah McPake, and a new version of The Elves and the Shoemaker by Katherine Chandler. Both had been due to be staged at the Sherman this year but, with the theatre now staying closed until spring, they have been postponed to next Christmas. Episodes from both stories will be scattered across the month and there are star turns, too, from Rhys Ifans, Ruth Jones, Rakie Ayola and Michael Sheen.
But advent calendars aren’t just for kids, of course, and theatres including Oldham’s Coliseum are releasing daily videos where elves and woodland creatures don’t get a look in. Behind the Coliseum’s first window is a slightly sloshed Sophie Ellicott, having a glass of red, remembering being dumped at Christmas and pulling a cracker with an imaginary boyfriend in a two-minute monologue by Zoe Iqbal. The 24 mini-plays, by 14 writers, were all filmed on stage at the Coliseum.
Gemma Brockis’s online Oddvent calendar has been made with experimental theatre artists including Hannah Ringham and Jamie Wood. Each day could reveal an image, an audio experience or a video and each one is based around a seasonal object. Brockis recognises that this Christmas, more than most, will leave people feeling lonely and cut off. Oddvent is designed to accompany them through the month. “Even if everyone is alone as they open the door,” says Brockis, “they should know that, on that very day, others are sharing the same experience in their own homes.”
For Manchester’s Royal Exchange, 50 creatives have come together to make All I Want for Christmas, a series of stories set on different streets in the region. It’s a project that brings together stars including Maxine Peake and Don Warrington with members of the theatre’s Young and Elders companies. The Royal Exchange, one of many venues to have endured a redundancy process this year, has become known for barnstorming Christmas musicals that pack out its in-the-round theatre. With its doors closed this month, it’s not just box-office income that is hit. The theatre has stressed that donations to its annual bucket collections after the Christmas shows go into its Arts Pot fund, to increase access to theatre for all audiences.
All any theatre-lover or worker wants for Christmas is the chance to experience that stage alchemy again: 100% viable creatives sharing their talent with audiences. Until that can happen across the whole country, the humble advent calendar is just one more way for artists to demonstrate the sort of imagination and initiative that have helped us through a bleak year.