Continuing the increasingly frequent trend for televised theatre, Channel 5 has programmed the musical adaptation of the consummate Christmas film Elf.
Recorded live at the Lowry in Salford, where it’s now running two years after playing London’s Dominion Theatre in 2015  (where it set a new West End record for its £240 tickets), it’s being offered as a festive treat. But, not to sound too Grinchy about it, it’s the musical equivalent of a toffee penny languishing in a box of Quality Street: for all its sweetness and festive wrapping, it’s actually pretty bland. It’ll do fine if there’s nothing else left, but not if there are a thousand other channels to tempt one away.
The 2003 film has become a Christmas classic, thanks largely to Will Ferrell’s performance as Buddy who, having been brought up by Santa in the North Pole, discovers he’s human and sets out to find his father in New York. This adaptation by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar, dispenses with a lot of the humour and replaces it with an anodyne score.
While Elf’s set design was a bit of a let down in a theatre setting – consisting primarily of animated backdrops that looked like a cross between a PowerPoint presentation and an early 1990s video game – this actually works fine on TV. We’re watching a screen anyway, so watching another one isn’t hugely to the show’s detriment.
Wide shots emphasise the show’s proscenium, mixed with closeups to pick out the detail in the performances. But though Ben Forster, playing Buddy, is a wonderful singer, he’s less successful as a comedy performer and that has an impact on the pace of the show.
Director and choreographer Morgan Young cannot sustain the festivities throughout the broadcast’s three hour running time. Part of that isn’t his fault – frequent ad break interruptions obviously kill any pace that show builds up, and the audience is really unresponsive – but he can be held responsible for the long, plodding scenes between the songs and the long, plodding songs between the scenes. Sklar’s songs, with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, feel very tacked on and aside from the bouncy Sparklejollytwinklejingley, the score is pretty forgettable.
The problems with Elf the Musical are magnified by being on TV. It’s just not as good as the film, and seeing as the film itself will be on about 300 times this Christmas, there is very little incentive to watch this instead – other than Forster’s superb singing.