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Richard Curtis’s Christmas Actually raises the ghost of ropey light-entertainment past

<span>Photograph: Matt Humphrey</span>
Photograph: Matt Humphrey

To those of us of a certain age, few things are more Christmassy than variety. It’s the cultural memory of Morecambe and Wise on Christmas Day, or Christmas with Val Doonican (ask your mums), or The Two Ronnies setting the sketches aside while David Essex sings A Winter’s Tale. Pass the yule log, granny – and someone stoke the fire! Or go see Christmas Actually, where the ghost of ropey, cosy light-entertainment past has risen, chains a-clanking, and is treading the boards of the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank.

For Morecambe and Wise this year, read Sanjeev Bhaskar and Jayde Adams – a precipitous downgrade, as I’m sure they’d agree. They’d probably have a joke about it too, this prefab double-act, to go with the one about being a “fairly stodgy linking duo” that Adams cracks in the opening moments. She’s right: reading stiltedly from their scripts, they’re stodgier than Christmas dinner, with all the chemistry of a broken Bunsen burner. But then, a certain naffness is built-in this evening. How couldn’t it be? Christmas Actually is curated by Richard Curtis in the spirit of his famously naff 2003 film Love Actually. Money will be raised for Comic Relief. Gallumphing sentimentality comes as standard. No one is pretending this is cool.

You expect hit-and-miss in variety – and we get plenty of the latter

That’s fine, in principle: if you want to be cool at Christmas, go stand outside. I’ll stay in the stalls for a medley of seasonal songs performed by Olivier award-winner Miriam-Teak Lee, or the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve message rendered as heroic storytelling, or a reenactment by a cast of four of the Christmas truce on the western front in 1914. Impossible to watch a Curtis-scripted take on the latter without thinking of his great Blackadder joke on the subject: “I was never offside!” There’s nothing that funny here, all evening. But the trenches scene is nicely, lightly done.

Not everything is that successful. The show is a compendium of sketches, “Christmas stories”, celebrity inserts on video (the England football squad telling Christmas cracker jokes, anyone?) and songs. The comedy is weak. There’s a 12 Days of Christmas sketch that establishes its premise early and offers no further surprises. There’s a “nativity as written by ChatGPT” skit that doesn’t seem to understand how ChatGPT works. We’re repeatedly invited to laugh at the cheap, “poor theatre” stylings – Bhaskar having to play all the parts in A Christmas Carol, say – which doesn’t fly given the opulent context and £100+ ticket prices.

You expect hit-and-miss in variety, of course, and we get plenty of the latter this evening, as celebrity guest Fiona Bruce shows up to, er, lob some white balloons into the crowd, and our MCs narrate micro-documentaries on this or that glowing example of Christmas charity (Band Aid; New York nonprofit Miracle on 22nd Street) gone by.

But for all the creakiness of this festive contrivance, I can’t get too Scrooge-like about Christmas Actually. It throws a lot at the wall, some of it falls apart on impact – but some of it captures the spirit of the season, like the Battersea Christmas choir assembling for a round of White Christmas, or the “kids say the funniest things” letters to Santa interlude, or Tim Minchin’s lovely humanist carol White Wine in the Sun, which Adams delivers with understated grace. At this time of year, I’m a sucker for this stuff, which is handy – because, given the quality of the entertainment on offer, suckers may be Christmas Actually’s optimum audience.

• At the Royal Festival Hall, London, until Monday