St Agnes Fountain – December 2013

Experience: 10/10

Venue: Hailsham Pavilion

Date: Saturday 14th December 2013

This was a fantastic introduction to both St Agnes Fountain and the Hailsham Pavilion, which is a delightful small theatre space with a good atmosphere and strong audience support. We have added it to our ‘check regularly’ list. The little stage was rather crowded, with Julie Matthews on keyboard (and occasional guitar) on the left, Chris While beside her on guitar and percussion, David Hughes next on guitar and Chris Leslie on the right with an assortment of instruments around him. Behind them were three banners each showing a ship, in the style of a stained glass window, and there was an abundance of tinsel everywhere that tinsel could safely be put as well as a string of ever-changing lights draped along the row of microphones. It would be hard to miss that this was a Christmas show.

The Aggies were in fine form, and treated us to an eclectic selection of Christmas-related songs and readings, from carols old and new to just-written songs and poems. The arrangements covered a wide range of styles as well – more on that story later. The opening number, Masters In This Hall, was followed by Deck The Halls, which set the tone nicely. Off to the American Mid-West next for the lively Christmas Time’s A-coming and the first bit of audience singalong, and then we were treated to a lovely version of O Little Town Of Bethlehem. Chris Leslie did his reading at this point; called The First Snow Of Winter, it was an atmospheric piece invoking the sense of snowy childhoods. Witness, Asoalin and Boules Et Guirlandes followed; the second of the three included the first inserted snippet of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, while the third tune is from Normandy and included yet another snippet of God Rest Ye. It turned out that that carol is so popular with the Aggies that they put it into just about every song arrangement they can, as well as doing a new version of it each year.

The first half continued with a song which David Hughes heard on Radio 4 one night, called Drive The Cold Winter Away. We were encouraged to join in this one as well, and then Chris While gave us her reading: Christmas Is Not Far Away. Shadows Of The Past and I Saw Three Ships finished the half, and we were invited to partake of the usual Christmas shopping opportunity – we’d already indulged, but topped up with a few more CDs just to make sure. And then we had a winning ticket in the half-time lottery, so another CD made its way into our collection. What a night!

The second half began with a beautiful rendition of All Through The Night, not a song I normally associate with Christmas, but it worked very well. Chris Leslie sang English lyrics, which helped. A rousing country-style Good King Wenceslas followed; good fun, but it would be nice if they could learn more than the first verse. The full scale God Rest Ye was next, and for this year’s version they’d merged it with a melody from Iraq. The Mediterranean feel was enhanced by Chris Leslie playing the Arabic ood – yet another instrument in his collection. Julie Matthews did her reading after that, which was a lovely poem called Tired Old Bones with an amusing twist in the end. When She Was Nine was the next song, and Chris explained that the song arose from an experience in her life when she was five, her sister was nine, and a beautiful pram was given to her sister instead of, as she expected, herself. The scars have now healed, thankfully, so we’re just left with this beautiful song.

The audience participation level increased for the next number Follow That Star – not only were we asked to join in the chorus, but we were asked to swing our right hands across and up, preferably holding our (switched on!) mobile phones to create a pretty view for those on the stage. Apparently we were the best of the tour (bet they say that to all their audiences). The next number was a brilliant version of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing to the tune of Billie Jean – sadly Michael Jackson’s estate won’t let them record it or they’d probably have a No. 1 hit on their hands.

How on earth do you follow something that good? Well, it was David Hughes’ turn to entertain us with his Christmas ‘reading’, and from the reactions of those on stage, never mind the audience, I suspect this is one part everyone in the room anticipates as keenly as Christmas day itself. This year’s offering was an exposition, in semi-Biblical-style prose, of the perplexity suffered by Joseph as he made his way towards Bethlehem. Had he been born in Bethlehem or somewhere else? Was he married? Was the nine-month pregnant Virgin Mary really a Virgin? Did they have any room at the inn? All these and other burning topical questions were dealt with in David’s deadpan, dry delivery, and we found it absolutely hilarious.

They managed to match that standard with the next song, which was a hip-hop version of The First Noel with some eastern input from the aforementioned ood. On New Year’s Eve and a new song, Let There Be Love, calmed us down a bit before the final number, We Three Kings. Of course we weren’t going to let them off with that, so they came back in front of the stage to give us Chris Leslie’s version of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, suitably adapted for the band. They went totally acoustic for this number and each had a ukulele for accompaniment. Silent Night was the final encore, and we left feeling extremely happy with our new firm favourites. We’ll be poised to swoop the instant we have next year’s dates.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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