Writer: Janice Connolly
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
A refrain that runs through Barbara Nice’s Christmas Special is ‘Are you comfortable?’ Well for much of the show it felt uncomfortably like I was playing a game where everybody but me knew the rules. Janice Connolly’s character Barbara Nice is a caricature of a middle-aged housewife and mother of five. Connolly’s live show has always depended on a high level of audience interaction. With the Christmas Special, however, the balance between scripted material and audience involvement shifts dramatically in favour of the latter.
Tonight there are relatively few formal comedy routines. There is some observational comedy in the form of Barbara Nice expressing common-sense opinions on and getting nostalgic about, mundane issue ( ‘ Haven’t they messed up Halloween?’) and a game of ‘Dead Celebrity Statues’ but for her Christmas Special Barbara Nice basically organises a massive and rather tacky Christmas party.
Barbara Nice certainly throws herself into being a non-stop party planner. Prior to the show starting, she wanders around the theatre chatting to patrons and setting the mood for what is to follow and repeats the process during the intermission. Shows dependent upon audience involvement rely heavily on patrons being in the right mood to play along and, at The Lowry, Nice gets lucky with wildly enthusiastic people who need little prompting to join in.
There is always a sense of ritual to Barbara Nice’s shows. The audience is so familiar with her act that they have a Pavlovian response to catchphrases and join in with routines as a reflex reaction. For the uninitiated, however, the atmosphere is a little intimidating leaving them in the position of trying to figure out in-jokes and wondering why everyone else seems to be having a great time laughing at gags that do not seem all that funny.
The party routines are deliberately low-key and cheap and cheerful. The audience is encouraged to mime a sleigh ride and race balloons along their row of seats. The atmosphere is that of a child’s birthday party and, if you are part of a group or on an outing from the office and able to savour the giddy mood with your mates the experience will be hilarious. But, as with all participative theatre, the charm fades if you are not one of those taking part but are standing on the sidelines watching.
The second Act becomes something of a slog comprising a mince pie eating contest and a raffle. The format for the latter involves the winners joining Nice onstage for a dance prior to claiming their prize. As there are ten prizes the routine goes on a bit and even Barbara Nice seems to appreciate that she might be pushing her luck so that the chaotic ending feels rushed and unfinished.
Fans of the Barbara Nice character will adore her Christmas Special as it plays to her strengths of interacting with the audience. Those who are not already familiar with the concept of the character and the nature of the routines might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Reviewed on 1st December 2017 | Image: Contributed