JOYCE MCMILLAN on MIRACLE ON 34th STREET at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and MIRACLE ON 34 PARNIE STREET at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 6.12.14.
Miracle On 34th Street 4 stars ****
Miracle On 34 Parnie Street 4 stars ****
IT WAS FIRST filmed in 1947, with a cast that included Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood; and that date tells you almost all you need to know about the story behind the film and the musical of Miracle On 34th Street, this year’s Christmas show at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. On one hand, the story of the old man who is employed as a stand-in Santa Claus at Macy’s department store in New York, and who quietly insists that he is the real Santa, is built around a gorgeous strand of Roosevelt-style American postwar idealism; the idea is that by being kind to the customers, and directing them to other stores for better bargains, Santa hits on a form of humane capitalism that actually works better than traditional cut-throat competition.
Yet on the other hand, the show also captures a moment of deep postwar confusion in sexual politics. The feisty heroine, store events manager Doris Walker, is a hard-working single mother with a dim view of men; one of the finest songs in Meredith Wilson’s not-very-memorable score is the one in which she vows to protect her lively little daughter, Susan, from the pain she has suffered. Yet the hero, next-door-neighbour and ex-army lawyer Fred Gaily, not only befriends little Susan in a manner only possible in more innocent times, but also successfully woos Doris by insulting her, calling her “little girl”, and singing loud, terrible and toe-curling songs about how well he understands “dames”.
If you can tolerate the show’s dodgy gender politics, though, then John Durnin’s Pitlochry production is a veritable feast of sheer theatrical competence and flair, featuring a fine New York skyline set by Adrian Rees, a powerful central performance from James Smillie as Santa, and 18-strong ensemble impressively choreographed throughout by E.J. Boyle. In the year 2014, there are aspects of this show that seem more suitable for a post-show discussion than an uncritical round of applause; but John Durnin and his company make a fine job of presenting the story, and of making its case for a little love, joy and faith, at the heart of our political and judicial systems.
70 miles south, meanwhile, at the Tron in Glasgow, it’s truly delightful to see the wickedly brilliant Johnny McKnight – writer, director and star – giving this old story the sharp post-modern shakedown it urgently needs, in his fierce and fluorescent new version set in Glasgow’s own Trongate. In Miracle On 34 Parnie Street, the story features a loud and proud female Santa, an uptight store manageress with a lisping young son, and a little lesbian love-affair to round off the plot; Ross Brown’s songs are rowdy and hilarious, and when kindly Santa sends T. J. Confuse’s customers elsewhere, it’s not to Gimbel’s of New York, but to the Savoy Centre in Sauchiehall Street.
McKnight’s version of the story actually follows the original very closely, from department-store opening to final courtroom scene, complete with a hilarious jury of kids from the audience. Yet its no-holds-barred feminist poitics – with all the girls in the audience roaring that “oh yes there can” be a female Santa – makes it a brilliant counterpoint to the original story, deftly adapted for multi-talented cast of six; and one that, beneath all its cheeky meta-theatrical jokery, still delivers that central message – that if we don’t believe in Santa, and in the values of kindness and conviviality he or she represents, then life becomes an ugly and joyless business, and no fun at all.