Photo of a smiling black woman with blue hair holding herself horizontally on suspended metal chains. She is wearing a fluffy white sheep onesie with curly horns, and long red high-heeeled boots.

‘The First XXXmas: A very naughty-tivity’, a Wales Millennium Centre and Duncan Hallis production

Review from: Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff; 14th December 2023

The Christmas show at Wales’ flagship arts venue this year is the Nativity story. So far so traditional. But here it’s presented as an adult-only cabaret featuring burlesque, drag, aerial circus, joy, menacing darkness, hope and love. It doesn’t throw tradition out the window so much as reframe it from a 21st Century, multi-cultural perspective. Knowing silliness, camp and cringe get us into a feel-good spirit in the first half, while the second part takes a pivot into more deeply felt matters that resonate with the world we see around us today. Both the immediate politics of the UK and the complex realities of international relations get a look in, whilst Wales itself gets its own celebratory moment which is a delight.

This is the third and final Christmas show directed by Duncan Hallis for the Wales Millennium Centre, featuring a recurring cast of performers who have made me regret each of the past two years that I missed. Our story’s narrator and technically-a-virgin Mary is local live-singing drag queen Polly Amorous, who confidently opens the show in a gown printed with heavenly rennaissance art, complementing the design of the Weston Studio venue that has been adorned for the occassion with panels of stained glass effect decadence and neon clouds. Laid out in proper cabaret style around a central stage, QR codes allow us to order table service service throughout the show and, as a special bonus, we all get pre-show activities on our tables to get us in the mood. Our neighbours have colouring, the group in front have a small xylophone, and we have some x-rated origami. Brad Caleb Lee is the visual visionary behind set and costume design, creating a fun and sex-positive atmosphere as well as building cohesion between the diverse performance numbers. Shout out too to lighting designer Sherry L Coenen for making it work (I especially loved her pink-yellow-blue ombré spotlights!)

Back in the world of the ‘naughty-tivity’, Mary’s husband Joseph is circus performer Eric McGill. The biblical carpenter is reinvented as a booty-short wearing, instagram-pouting lumberjack who turns his opening blockhead presentation into a camp fetish act. No matter how many times I see someone drive a nail into their nasal cavity, it always makes me grimace and recoil. But of course, I can’t stop watching, and that wicked thrill is even stronger when the electric drill comes out!

Later in the show, Eric performs his swinging trapeze with style, sparkle and top-notch skills as the star guiding Mary’s way, and he reappears again as an utterly menacing King Herod, corrupting the modern classic bathtub straps act into something far more sinister. (For those who aren’t familiar with the nativity story, Herod famously ordered a massacre of innocent children, causing a bloodbath…). Circus performers aren’t always so adept at acting, but McGill shows he has a range of characters as well as routines in his wheelhouse. He also provides the counterweighting for the show’s other aerialist, Bunmi Odumosu, when she performs first as a punky little donkey on vertical rope, and later as a sexy dominatrix sheep complete with whips and (aerial) chains. The animal appearances absolutely make sense within the context of the story, and the country’n’western styled accompaniment of Rihanna’s ‘Desperado‘ flips shepherding into the contemporary rodeo arena. Odumosu uniquely combines her European aerial training with African dance styles to create a distinct cultural fusion that is immediately exciting to someone who sees a lot of cookie-cutter aerial performance. A fuller display of her dance skills is given later on the ground in duet with Helena Gonzalez, who emerges from her stage management blacks to deliver a feisty firefans performance.

FooFoo Labelle pops up to get us all in the mood with some interactive dance moves, and later has a dedicated spot to her brilliant burlesque, where the conventions of Christmas packages – and their unwrapping – are given a humourous appraisal. Rahim el Habachi gives us Roman soldier comedy and belly-dancer beauty, plus an emotional rendition of Marcel Khalife’s ‘Asfour – supported by projected English translations – that poignantly points to his own experiences as a refugee, as well countless others including, of course, Jesus and his family in the nativity story. Multi-talented musician Jenna Dyckhoff – who also has a gorgeous singing voice – shows off their skills on electric violin, saxophone, and as a keyboardist throughout the show, before surprising us all further with a puppetry drag king number (for those of you who’re still following the story, this is the Three Kings moment. I was so caught up in enjoying it that it took me a minute to cotton on too!)

Throughout it all, Polly/Mary sashays and shrugs her way through the uproar on her mission to save the world, spurred on by booming angel voices (credit to sound designer Eugene Capper) projected onto large screens amid psychedelic graphics. There is a self-confessed air of narcissism to her speeches, but she’s charismatic and she’s earnt it, as a retrospective video montage of the team’s previous Christmas shows and a heartfelt rendition of ‘Send in the Clowns‘ evidence. Eventually she realises that ‘you don’t have to have a magical baby to change the world’, and a montage of audio clips share the creative team’s various thoughts on the spirit of Christmas. It all gets pretty emotional for me in the audience, but hopeful too. It gives meaning to the holiday for those of us who don’t subscribe to its religious origins, and offers it instead as a beacon of love and a wish for peace that we can strive to implement in our own lives. (And I’m sure those who do hold Christian beliefs can get behind that message too).

As a latecomer to the party, I’m sad that the group’s Christmas trilogy is at an end, and I would love to see the team reunited in future projects. In the meantime, their First XXXmas offering has been the perfect tonic to conventional regurgitation of blinkered Christmas narratives. It reflects the human reality around us, and lets us laugh, drink and be merry with the best of them.

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