The Globe’s 2022 Christmas show is the same as its 2021 Christmas show – the difference being that ‘The Fir Tree’ 1.0 was ravaged by Omicron and didn’t get much of a run. So now it’s back, meaning Globe resident writer Hannah Khalil has rather impressively upstaged Shakespeare to have plays running in both of the iconic venue’s theatres: blaring pop music occasionally intruded upon ‘The Fir Tree’ 2.0, presumably originated from her Wanamaker Playhouse show ‘Hakawatis’.
Directed by Globe boss Michelle Terry and continuing the theatre’s on-off tradition of doing an outdoor family in the middle of winter, ‘The Fir Tree’ is an endearingly loose riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same name. As is the way with Andersen – the author of pretty much the entire canon of sad children’s stories – ‘The Fir Tree’ combines a twee premise with a cruel twist that’s intentionally telegraphed a mile off. It’s told from the perspective of a sentient fir tree – played with winningly naive enthusiasm by Molly Logan – which is tired of being small and rooted in the forest, and wants to grow up and find out what fun place all the trees that disappear have moved to. A succession of eccentric animals – most delightfully, Jos Vantyler’s hilariously loquatious, self-regarding stork – can’t quite bring themselves to tell the poor plant the truth.
It could obviously be aggressively sad. But Terry’s production and Khalil’s script is cheerily irreverent, and more initially focussed on the absurdity of detailing a tree’s life in a forest. The inevitability that our hero will be chopped down is more a sort of heavily ironized banana skin than a focus of great pathos.
When the tree does get the chop, the play feels a bit less sure-footed about what it wants to be, something compounded by the arrival of actor Paul Ready (aka Kevin off ‘Motherland’, aka Mr Michelle Terry), who turns up to bouncily monologue through Andersen’s ‘The Emperor and the Nightingale’. It’s not a story unsympathetic to the themes of ‘The Fir Tree’ – both essentially argue for leaving nature alone – but it speaks to the fact that there isn’t really an hour of story in the title yarn. Still, there are far worse ways for a family show to vamp for time – believe me, I’ve seen them – and certainly the production accrues enough goodwill from the audience that Khalil can monkey with the title story’s ending without it feeling like she’s disnifying it.
Samuel Wilde’s carbon-neutral, recycled sets and puppets have a lovely DIY quality, with reclaimed cardboard doing a lot of the heavy lifting. There’s a plaintive, folksy band, and judicious pepperings of carols keep us all appropriately festive. ‘The Fir Tree’ feels a bit thrown together, a bit pandemic era, a bit padded out in places. But it’s lots of fun, has a quirky personality of its own, and with the cold snap mercifully over by press night, there’s something extra magical – and even slightly transgressive – about being outside at the Globe in the dead of winter.