Photo by Mark Senior
Time Out says
4 out of 5 stars
The stage adaptation of the beloved Will Ferrell film bounds joyously back into town
‘Elf the Musical’ rolls back into the West End with the same blunt-force charm as Buddy, its star. The last time this production was at the Dominion Theatre, in 2015, it was the venue’s fastest-selling show in nearly a century. It’d be a huuuge surprise if it’s not a success this time either.
Apart from a few tweaks and a couple of excised characters, the story largely follows the smash-hit 2003 Will Ferrell movie vehicle that’s now a perennial Christmas favourite. Titular hero Buddy’s Teflon-coated cheer can’t disguise the fact that he’s suspiciously tall for an elf. When Santa Claus breaks the news to him that he is, in fact, a human, Buddy sets out from the North Pole to find his real father in New York City.
The influences on the film and this show are legion, particularly ’80s fish-out-of-water classics like ‘Big’. Buddy arrives to find a fraught New York, full of Christmas as a sales pitch, but not with its spirit. His father, Walter Hobbes, is a harried, snappy publisher of kids’ books with no time for the young son he actually knows he has. (Buddy was the result of a college romance, whose mother died without ever telling Walter.) From initially stumbling onto the shop floor of department store Macy’s, to inveigling his way into Walter’s office and then his home, Buddy’s open-handed, child-like joy shows everyone he meets the true meaning of Christmas.
This show lives or dies depending on its Buddy. Thankfully, Simon Lipkin knocks it out of the park. There are shades of Will Ferrell in his performance, but he brings an innocence that feels distinct. He tempers what could easily be an annoyingly consistent optimism with some killer line deliveries. He never descends into saccharine. Meanwhile, as Walter, Tom Chambers is grumpy and overworked rather than a full Scrooge. It lends a welcome trace of reality to the show’s otherwise cartoon altitude. Elsewhere, in a show largely focused on male relationships, Rebecca Lock and Georgina Castle still make their characters spark as Walter’s wife, Emily, and Buddy’s would-be girlfriend, Jovie, respectively. And Kim Ismay, as Walter’s assistant, Deb, pretty much steals every scene she’s in.
Philip Wm McKinley’s production is a fast-paced, Tim Burton-esque visual feast, full of exaggerated angles, art deco stylings and slick projections. There are throwaway references to modern tech – and some jarringly attempts to crowbar in some British-isms – but this is really a fantasia. It whirls you up in a Technicolor dream of Christmas, with Liam Steel’s choreography rarely giving you time for breath. Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s script is quippy and witty, while Chad Beguelin’s knowing lyrics stay on the right side of affectionate rather than arch. There are a couple of subplot cul-de-sacs and a few dodgy moments (particularly the initial presentation of a Chinese restaurant). But propelled by Matthew Sklar’s score – which hits all the right joyful/bittersweet notes – this is a slickly irresistible and fizzily enjoyable confection of a show. You may find yourself feeling festive even before Santa makes his final act appearance.