DECEMBER again, and I sit in the half-light waiting for Nine Lessons and Carols to begin. But this is not the usual choral service, but a new play.
The first voice is not a chorister’s, but that of the artistic director, Rupert Goold, who leaps on stage and addresses us all, suitably masked and spaced. We are welcomed back to the theatre; people are thanked, especially struggling freelancers. “Enjoy the extra legroom,” he signs off. Then the voice of an elderly woman (Annie Firbank) comes over the track, saying how much she would love to be with us (but she’s obviously shielding), and after a while her words are taken up by one of the six actors now on stage. Logs, stacked as if ready for a fire in Tom Scutt’s design, line the walls of the auditorium.
Billed as “Stories for a long winter” and “not a corona play”, Nine Lessons is a wonderful life-giving string of original songs, monologues, and ensemble scenes that articulate something of where we are now, what we’ve been through, and what might be to come. It is not a conventional play. There are no characters or plot to speak of, but the vignettes are glimpses into others’ lives and reflections of our own.
The monologues are particularly enthralling: Elliot Levey on baking with bananas, Toheeb Jimoh, the frank and hilarious quickfire delivery driver; Luke Thallon, who’s heart-rendingly taken home an abandoned dog; and Naana Agyei-Ampadu, portraying a bereaved daughter. Humour, as in the group scenes in which they are media execs planning a John Lewis-style Christmas ad, helps to lighten the intense but moving 90 minutes. Also the songs, all pith and pathos such as the opener “To my January self”, accompanied by the actors themselves and mostly belted out by Maimuna Memon and Katie Brayben, channelling Amy Winehouse and Joni Mitchell.
Helen MurrayFrom left: Toheeb Jimoh, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Elliot Levey, Luke Thallon, and Katie Brayben in Nine Lessons and Carols: Stories For A Long Winter at the Almeida Theatre, Islington
All Corona Life is Here at the Almeida Theatre, in London: home cooking, online shopping, cramped relationships, break-ups, domestic violence, mental health, dementia, care-home separation, living with parents again, blurred time, distance dating, quarantine. Black Lives Matter also features.
It’s very 2020 and of the moment. (“You stockpiled toilet roll. I bought shares in loneliness.”) Will it last? It’s a snappy record of an extraordinary time, democratically “created by director Rebecca Frecknall, playwright Chris Bush, and the company”. The poet and translator Anne Carson said: “The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours” — something that this tight-knit cast affirms so well.
We have been missing the vitality of theatre over many months to help us to respond and make sense of things. This Christmas gift of a play couldn’t come at a better time. It closes with the hopeful metaphor in song about the lighting of a candle. For a people dwelling in deep darkness, on them in some way the light has shone.
Nine Lessons and Carols runs at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1, until 9 January. Box office: 020 7359 4404. almeida.co.uk