There’s something resoundingly magical about Christmas.
Frost-glistened streets with candy-coloured lights blinking in distant windows. The warm glow of spending time with family and friends, sharing the season with revelers young and old. That first, distant tinny tinkle of Christmas songs. Mulled wine. Old movies. Greggs vegan Festive Bake.
Hard to pin down, yet there nonetheless, that little crackling sparkle of magic slinks into every corner of the Christmas season. There are, of course, billions of people who don’t celebrate or even like Christmas. However, the need to share the joy is real for those who feel it, especially when it comes to conjuring that magical feeling for children.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has magic baked into the fabric of the story
Agape in wonder at every dog-eared scrap of tinsel and moth-eaten bauble, children have a unique experience of Christmas. Yet, as adults, our recollections of childhood Christmas magic fade over time from vivid recollections to vague, wistful mince-pie flavoured memories.
Nevertheless, through an implicit hush-hush, nudge-nudge pact, we strive to protect Christmas for our children in the hope, perhaps, of reinvigorating some of that magic for ourselves.
Northern Stage in recent years has developed a reputation for fuelling that Christmas magic with impeccably-realised productions that the whole family can warm their festive cockles by.
While 2018’s A Christmas Carol was witty and acerbic, 2019’s The Snow Queen was a thrilling reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s 175-year-old tale, both productions full of magic and wide-eyed wonder.
Back after a year out from festive performances— last year saw The Emperor’s New Clothes presented as a digital show to enjoy at home—Northern Stage is back with a new seasonal adaptation of a classic tale, this time based on the balladic poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Whereas A Christmas Carol is a ghost story with festive sauce, the Snow Queen is a battle between good and evil, and The Emperor’s New Clothes is something to do with having the courage of your convictions, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice has magic baked into the fabric of the story, offering the perfect opportunity for Northern Stage to deliver on its promise of a ‘truly magical Christmas treat for all the family’.
a well-intentioned experiment pitched younger than usual
Here then, in a rough-and-tumble, whimsical alternate-universe Newcastle upon Tyne, we meet little Hatty Rabbit, leading a dreary life orphaned and overseen by an unbearable aunt. Then, out of nowhere, this life transforms when a letter slides underneath the door on a crisp winter evening, an invitation to learn real magic and discover she isn’t a nobody, after all: she’s a wizard—sorry, sorcerer.
A relatable cultural hook to hang the story on, the Harry Potter influence infuses The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, from Hatty’s basic origin and destiny, her magical training and the dark conjurer in pursuit, right through to the—literally on the nose—decision to give the lead character round-rimmed glasses.
While Potter is an obvious cultural hook on which to hang the story, it doesn’t derail anything, unlike our introduction to Hatty; a tonally bizarre birth scene that veers from slapstick comedy with babies flying through the air to the stark sight of doctors cracking wise over a dead mother’s body before wheeling the cadaver offstage.
A lengthy opening follows that sees Hatty sent to boarding school and us finally arriving at the doorstep of the Sorcerer at the very end of the first act. Here, the magic comes as Hatty powers toward her destiny, and an enchanted, glowing door delivers the first real bit of wonder, complete with a sentient, wisecracking doorknocker that threatens to steal the whole show.
The show accelerates in the second half as Hatty begins her training in the ways of magic under the tutelage of the titular Sorcerer, a charming Nick Figgis, all flapping cloak and children’s TV presenter glee, landing somewhere between Doc Brown and Doctor Who.
Beth Crame is charmingly relentless as Hatty, the student of musical theatre bringing all her skill to bear as a joyous ball of optimism who clearly struck a chord with the youngest members of the audience, especially when delivering some fun pantomime back and forth.
Her seek and destroy quest for Hatty gathering steam as the magical education continues, Jessica Johnson is a captivating presence as villain Canopus Sly, devastating in a sharp suit and even sharper grin. Johnson colours Canopus with villainous glee, indulging in some great callbacks and shining when allowed to do some crowdwork, notably the only time when the show eeks out into more adult—if still PG—territory.
Setting the whole thing in a Newcastle upon Tyne that’s recognisable yet has magic tucked away in every corner if you know how to look for it, we see the Sorcerer’s workshop transform into the ‘Stranger Market’; an offbeat Grainger Market where knockabout stallholders trade herbs, potions, wands and all manner of magical items.
This little trip outside the Sorcerer’s den is sadly more or less the one glimpse of the world beyond we get. A good amount of action critical to the plot—and integral to the finale—takes place offstage, relayed to us by characters using telescopic pipes to spy on the goings-on across the city.
fuelled primarily by the energetics of the cast
Surprisingly, considering the subject matter, there is no genuinely gobsmacking trick in the show. While the stage magic—which is fun enough—is peppered throughout The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, all of it is surprisingly low key.
Though the kids may lap up whatever tricks are thrown at them, the lack of anything genuinely astounding for the adults in the room was noticeable, and the show is left to barrel along fuelled primarily by the energetics of the cast.
Heather Dutton is delightful, gobbling up the stage every time she looms in as the flowery cloud of awful that is Aunt Primula Fudge; all our worst nightmares of overbearing aunts brought to vivid life.
Alice Blundell strikes an ethereal note as Hatty’s lost mother, appearing as a spectral presence throughout despite her startling early-on death having seemingly little impact on her daughter as the story unfolds. She also has great, if sadly brief, fun as a cartoonishly evil teacher.
Talia Nyathi, making her theatre debut, is immediately likable yet feels underused as Hatty’s best friend Evie Spelk, lost in the commotion of the first half and deployed as a plot device in the second.
The show gamely rattles along, getting into a bit of a plot-heavy muddle late in the second act before landing eventually on something to do with believing in yourself and the true magic being inside of all of us.
Whereas previous Northern Stage festive shows were four-quadrant crowdpleasers, lavish musical theatre productions offering broad entertainment for the whole family from nipper to nana, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice skews noticeably younger.
Aiming for a younger audience isn’t a bad thing by any means. Yet the price here seemed to be the engagement of older viewers, and even a good proportion of the younger ones who—despite some effective pantomime histrionics from the hero and villain—got steadily more fidgety as the show went on.
does a Christmas show about magic feel magical?
Tonally strange, oddly paced, overly twee and never quite sure of itself, this is a well-intentioned experiment pitched younger than usual and held together by a game, energetic cast.
Ultimately, despite an inoffensive message and a good heart, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice pales compared to the rapturous productions of Northern Stage Christmas past.
Ultimately though, the question is not about how the show compares to those of years ago, but whether it is satisfying on its own terms. Specifically, does a Christmas show about magic feel magical?
Framing the question for us, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice programme opens with a quote from Roald Dahl, a chief crafter of children’s storytelling.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
I believe in the magic of Christmas, and I think the team behind The Sorcerer’s Apprentice do too, yet, try as I did—and as open as my heart was and glittering as my eyes were while I watched—I couldn’t find the magic here, and it genuinely pains me to have to say so.
Still, as with every Christmas, I’ll be back next year. Why?
Because I want to believe.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is playing at Northern Stage until 31st December 2021.
Complimentary tickets provided by Northern Stage
Photos: Pamela Raith