Nicky Gayner: Unashamedly Christmas

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Nicky Gayner

Unashamedly Christmas

The Pheasantry, London, U.K., December 12, 2018

Reviewed by Fiona Coffey for Cabaret Scenes

Nicky Gaynor

The festive season marks the welcome return of Nicky Gayner with Unashamedly Christmas, a highly personal take on the traditional Christmas show.  It may be a challenge to evoke the magic of Christmas for an adult audience in these careworn times, but it’s one that Gayner embraces wholeheartedly. The result is a classy, warmhearted Christmas cracker of show, designed to melt the stoniest of hearts. It features glorious inventive arrangements by MD Tom Foskett-Barnes of both well-loved classics and unfamiliar treasures. These are beautifully performed by Gayner and her superb trio, led by Foskett-Barnes with Will Franden on bass and Jeanette Williams on drums.

Festooned with 24 sparkling, beautifully wrapped packages of varying shapes and sizes, London’s The Pheasantry almost becomes an extension of Gayner’s living room.

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Each package contains a surprise, revealed during the course of the show, which Gayner uses to illustrate her stories and song choices and to create some enjoyable moments of audience interaction.

Right from the start, it’s clear we’re in for a musical treat. The opening number, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (Haven Gillespie/J. Fred Coots) is arranged as a fresh and arresting upbeat swing. The following ditties, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (“Hippo the Hero”) (John Rox) and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (Johnny Marks) are also performed with polish and care.

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But it’s in the bigger songs where Gayner can demonstrate her vocal and interpretative flair, and one of the great pleasures of this show is to see how almost overly-familiar songs are given a new lease of life with some truly stunning treatments. “Last Christmas” (George Michael) is beautifully sung and deeply moving, as is “Away in a Manager” (traditional), to name but two. There’s a lovely, unforced, natural quality to Gayner’s voice, shown to great effect in Foskett-Barnes’ soulful arrangements.

There are two rousing medleys for those who enjoy a sing-along at Christmas, but for my money, there’s even more fun to be had when Gayner decides to subvert the traditional Christmas fare. There’s a spirited “Surabaya Santa” (Jason Robert Brown) to close the first half and an even naughtier Eric Idle song to open the second. These, together with the comic “The Twelve 12 Days After Christmas” (Frederick Silver) give voice to those who are not unashamedly thrilled by Christmas—particularly the overworked women—and such choices add useful grit to the show’s celebratory theme. Just before the close there is the most touching “anti-Christmas” moment of all—a beautifully paired-down rendition of “Christmas Makes Me Cry” (Matthew West) with just Gayner and her ukulele for accompaniment. Truly a pin-drop moment.

This is the second collaboration between Gayner and Foskett-Barnes and it’s great to see how their work together has evolved since Hooray for Love in 2016. They make a great team, each bringing their own creative imagination and meticulous crafting to the piece. There’s also more interaction between them and the audience, which will undoubtedly evolve as they perform this show many times, as I hope they do.

Unashamedly Christmas avoids the twin perils of cynicism and saccharine to create an authentic celebration of the many facets of the holiday, which should ensure its widespread appeal and ongoing presence in the Christmas calendar.

Fiona Coffey

Fiona Coffey joins our review team as a cabaret enthusiast and jazz singer, just as she makes her sell-out debut on the London cabaret scene with a self-devised tribute to her alter-ego Mrs. Robinson. She has hosted jazz evenings and performed at a number of venues including The Crazy Coqs, The Pheasantry, and 606 Club. In her day job she is a leadership development coach, travelling around the globe, working with a hugely diverse population of executives, as they grapple with the challenges of leadership and organizational change. Having recently expended most of her writing energies on her doctoral thesis, she welcomes the opportunity to entertain and inform a different audience through Cabaret Scenes.