Luke Thallon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Katie Brayben, and Maimuna Memon in Nine Lessons and Carols at the Almeida. (Photo by Helen Murray)

'Nine Lessons and Carols' at the Almeida is a mixed bag of vignettes

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf
Add the Almeida to the gratifying list of London playhouses that are opening their doors this week for the first time since March, following directly on the heels of another Off-West End mainstay, the Hampstead.  But whereas that northwest London venue is currently looking towards the past by way of a Harold Pinter play (The Dumb Waiter) from 60 years ago, the Almeida has its eye on the here and now - specifically, a fragmentary play devised for our fraught times that draws its title from the traditional carol service that many of us associate with its seasonal broadcast from King's College, Cambridge.
Not that religion is high on the agenda of a piece that has been collectively devised by writer Chris Bush, the fast-rising director Rebecca Frecknall (whose Summer and Smoke at this address won leading lady Patsy Ferran an Olivier Award last year) and an ensemble of six. That's not including the venerable Annie Firbank, who welcomes us via a voice-over explaining that her age (87) makes it impossible to be with the acting company in person.
The performers on view are a hugely impressive bunch, ranging from the clarion-voiced Olivier Award-winner Katie Brayben, London's first Carole King in Beautiful, to Luke Thallon, recently seen in Tom Stoppard's Leopoldstadt but who made a previous splash at this very address in the Mike Bartlett play Albion three years ago. Their task here is to locate the emotional thread connecting a series of scenes, some of them vignettes really, each of which gets its own subtitle in the text. The playlets in various ways address what is referred to deliberately obliquely as "the current situation," while another ponders the Italian origins of the word "quarantine" in quaranta, meaning 40: and you thought 14 days in self-isolation was a lot!  
The production itself gives off an informal, hipster vibe and it's pointless to criticize the piecemeal nature of something that deserves enormous credit for having come together at all. If I sometimes wished for a greater cumulative impact, the pieces conjoin to form a set of responses to the pandemic that reference Mark Ruffalo and The Avengers one minute, Black Lives Matter the next. Characters range from a couple at their wits' end (one of the pair wants freedom more than love) to a furiously hard-working delivery man who gets asked whether he knows anyone who might be able to supply some coke. (No, not the drink.) Toheeb Jimoh does so much with this briefly seen character that one wonders whether he might merit a fuller play all his own.
Poetry jostles against the more prosaic, stories of personal travail bump up against cosmological musings. The ever-welcome Elliot Levey has a wonderful set piece where a recipe for banana bread morphs into a pointed expression of grief. An opening study in loneliness locates the need for companionship in the ability of the first humans to extract painful thorns from a stranger's back. "The thorns were a part of their people now - in their veins, under their skin," notes Thallon, before commending a resourcefulness to our ancestors indicative of a survivalist strength that has served humankind well to this day. Loneliness returns a scene or two later as an evident leitmotif: "Some of us have always been alone. You will soon get used to the cold."
In a class of its own are the music and lyrics of company member Maimuna Memon, a singer-songwriter who takes instantly eloquent and plaintive command of Tom Scutt's circular set amidst an auditorium that has seen its seating capacity cut by two thirds due to the pandemic. Covid itself is never specifically mentioned during a performance (no interval) that comes to rest on a song calling out for the need for touch. But as we come to the end of a dark year, not to mention the arrival of the winter solstice, it's hard not to be stirred by Memon's closing insistence that we "hold the light."
Nine Lessons and Carols runs to Jan 9 at the Almeida Theatre and will be livestreamed on Dec. 15.
Photo credit: Luke Thallon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Katie Brayben, and Maimuna Memon in Nine Lessons and Carols at the Almeida. (Photo by Helen Murray)

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