Having defined the season for millions when he directed Love Actually, Richard Curtis is back to purge his festive fluids in the Royal Festival Hall. Christmas Actually, which he writes and curates, is a heavy dish of songs, sketches, poems and pre-recorded celebrity cameos, many of which accurately simulate the feeling of sitting on the sofa after Christmas lunch, watching the John Lewis advert with trapped wind.
Curtis opens the show with a montage of seasonal home movies, including plenty of his signature tearful airport reunions. You visualise a vault full of these videos under his house. Throughout the evening, his collection is supplemented by further clips from his celebrity friends: Joanna Lumley tells us about her favourite Christmas present; Peter Capaldi thinks the true meaning of the season is spending time with loved ones. Even if the level of mawkishness in this show isn’t to your taste, you can’t accuse Curtis of presenting it cynically – the man’s an absolute fiend for this stuff.
In the tricky role of hosts, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Jayde Adams seem a little under-rehearsed, stumbling over the feed lines on their cue cards. Although they’re the biggest names in the show, much of their stage time is spent doing awkward setups for the real set pieces: the powerful renditions of classic Christmas songs by Miriam-Teak Lee, and the sketches and stories from a foursome of actors. The writing is weak and sweaty throughout, but the actors can at least deliver it fluently and with enthusiasm.
The opening sketch, a comic nativity play supposedly written by AI, is especially pallid, and is really the only part of the show that you can confidently say ChatGPT didn’t have a hand in, as it completely misunderstands how the tool functions. The biggest bright spot in the first half comes from comedy duo Flo & Joan, who turn up with real jokes and a bit of personality, although sadly only for five minutes.
In the second half, things go ever so slightly off the rails – to the show’s benefit. It’s not always clear how the topic at hand is being honoured when we’re presented with a ghost story or the history of the Apollo 8 mission, but it’s nice to take a break from the Christmas algorithm. (Adams and Bhaskar had perhaps had a glass of sherry in the interval and seemed a little more relaxed.) She gets to cover Tim Minchin, which is a nice pairing for comedy nerds, and Bhaskar gets to play all the ghosts in different accents for a truncated Christmas Carol.
Five per cent of the net profit goes to Comic Relief, and entreaties to donate are probably worth more of a critical shield. If you find comfort in familiar songs and stories at this time of year, as most of us do to some extent, you might find some comfort here too. Curtis has the schmaltz pipe set to full blast, but what better season to overindulge? Ignore me humbugging myself to death in the corner.
Until Dec 11. Tickets: southbankcentre.co.uk