Blue Elephant Theatre – 13 December. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
The Dot Collective takes theatre and workshops to groups that would otherwise not access the arts, travelling to care communities in the South East. Through workshops in dementia cafés, sharing and exploring the ideas and memories of participants, writer Alexander Moschos created Desert Dust at the Star of Bethlehem as part of the Once Upon A Christmas Song project. The workshops took place in October, when London experienced those spectacular and eerily coloured skies as Saharan dust clouds blew in, and this becomes a major plot point in the show.
Using puppets, actor-musicians and traditional Christmas songs, Desert Dust is a charming version of the Nativity set in a London pub. Andy and Tina – exquisitely crafted puppets brought to life expertly by Chris Levens and Ariel Harrison – live with their Auntie Anne, but Tina dreams of leaving home. Seeing the Saharan dust in the sky as a sign that it’s time for her to join her Tuareg brothers in the desert, she plans her departure, but can’t quite cajole her Auntie or her Nan into giving her enough money. Meanwhile, lonely Andy tries to befriend the mysterious Mr Shepherd who lodges in the pub. As the residents of the pub go about their business on the night before Christmas, two strangers sneak into the building looking for shelter. The other characters are all played by Sonya Cullingford and Toby Lee, with quiet but finely judged performances that allow the child characters to shine.
There are cheesy jokes, slightly risqué jokes, but mostly an air of joy and general loveliness about the whole production. The children’s roles are sensitively written, and it doesn’t take long to start relating to the puppets as real people, thanks to the natural performances of the actors. When Andy tentatively puts his hand on Mr Shepherd’s knee or shoulder, or clutches his Mr Rabbit for comfort, it gets even more emotional than if this were a real child.
The innocent way that the children accept the plight of Mariya and Yusef, and help them unquestioningly, eloquently highlights the immorality of some attitudes towards refugees and migrants, and raises questions about how Mary and Joseph would have been treated in the modern world. The story is carried along by gorgeous renditions of Christmas carols that Andy has learned from his old music teacher. These are performed beautifully by the cast, and arranged by Toby Lee. The harmonies will give you goose bumps, and there’s even a singalong at the end.
Watching the production in a small theatre was spellbinding, with people around me describing the show as heart-warming, delightful, and charming. The Dot Collective take this production into care homes and communities, and I can only imagine the magic and joy they create there.