Nine Lessons and Carols: Almeida Theatre
- Credit: Helen Murray
After two national lockdowns and many desperate months of darkness, the Almeida reopens with an achingly felt response to the year: an abstract collage of sketched experiences, generated by locking down a group of six actors in a rehearsal room with director, Rebecca Frecknall, and writer, Chris Bush.
Conceived to reflect the madness, despair and occasional strange warmth of 2020, Nine Lessons and Carols wears its humane intentions clearly on its sleeve.
The play opens with a voiceover in fairy-tale mode debunking the title – there are no carols. If there are lessons, they are slow to emerge.
A contemporary myth about an abject everyman [or in this case woman] roaming the earth with a painful thorn stuck between her shoulder blades, trying to find a soul mate, gives way to a Caryl Churchill-like scheme of jolting monologues and two-handers conjuring familiar lockdown habits and emotions.
Initially disorientating, the aim of the writing becomes clear: to find a universal myth in the experience of loneliness.
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There are moments of wit and insight: a bereaved father [Elliot Levey] bakes banana bread and subsequently urges his depressed bulimic son [Luke Thallon] to eat more; the same son tells of finding an abandoned black dog, also a metaphor for his depression; a young woman [Katie Brayben] buys a camper van off eBay to break out of a relationship and finds an Arcadian idyll growing vegetables; an Amazon delivery man [Toheeb Jimoh] insists ‘the world didn’t stop because you did.’
The voices are primarily middle-class so the range is limited and the black lives matter scenes - a mother and son argue about the dangers of attending a rally during a pandemic - barely skim the surface. Scenes of the ensemble brainstorming a Christmas advert were trite.
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The most powerful sense of loneliness comes through the melancholic songs, beautifully sung by Maimuna Memon.
The staging in the round uses stacks of logs to conjure our collective longing for much-needed warmth and the lighting is magical.
While Nine Lessons is superbly performed, it doesn’t quite find the depth it seeks but it does shine a light on theatre’s potential to facilitate spiritual transcendence.