The most extraordinary thing about Chickenshed’s Christmas show, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is the children. Bar the odd sulky child dragged along by a parent, or the jostling school groups, you rarely see young people in theatres. Yet at the Chickenshed theatre in Southgate, somewhere at the end of the Piccadilly line, the atmosphere is flamboyantly Mediterranean. The audience is of all ages$$s$$ people laugh and chat. The ensemble cast has so many children that they barely fit on the stage. These are not precious child stars but young people revelling in dance, song, and drama$$s$$ ‘community theatre’ at its very best.
Which is not to say that this is exclusively a children’s show: The Twelve Days of Christmas is effortlessly professional, slick and witty. David Carey’s imaginative script sees four young bearers of golden rings searching for the fifth. They are hampered in their search by a family of four evil calling birds, winged Dickensian cockneys dressed all in black with glam rock make-up to match. Along the way we meet three rapping French hens who can’t speak French, eleven boiler-suited pipers (“If you need a friend, we’ve got a U-bend”), six geese a-laying supplemented by fifty battery geese, and eleven ladies (and gentleman) dancing to rival anything seen on BBC1. The twelve drummers drumming are the live band, which provides the upbeat, ska-like music for the songs that punctuate the performance (the CD comes with the programme).
Special mention in a show with so many stars must go to Robin Shillinglaw and Dina Williams, who play the two balletic turtledoves, dressed in matching velvet jerkins, the omnipresent narrators of the plot. All members of Chickenshed learn how to use sign language and one of the most remarkable aspects of the performance is how signing is embedded in the heart of the play. Rather than having someone standing at the side of the stage, Shillinglaw and Williams act as an expertly choreographed signing tag-team, in which physical expression (literally) becomes a finely calibrated dance. The other stellar performance comes from Loren Jacobs, who embodies the mercurial partridge with his slinking, athletic movements, and, with the aid of a bungee, some impressive acrobatics.
Graham Hollick’s simple set of scaffolding and pleated cloth screens allows for the big set pieces which, in the final tableau, sees well over a hundred people on stage. Given the dynamics of moving dozens of people on and off stage, this is a remarkably seamless show. What’s more, the ensemble cast is made up of two ‘rotas’ which allows for double the amount of actors to take part. The ‘Chickenshed experience’ is all about inclusivity and diversity, yet it maintains an excellent artistic calibre. It is as children, after all, that we learn how to play.