I’ve never been to a press night as fancy as the one The Lowry threw for Elf. There were carollers, mince pies, glasses of fizz on arrival and even a sleigh to pose for pictures in (I didn’t, by the way). No wonder – it’s the musical’s first foray outside of the West End, where it had a sell out run in 2016 in spite of some eye-wateringly high ticket prices. Based on the classic Will Ferrell film from 2003, I went to Elf expecting laughs and heart-warming moments in equal measure.
To some extent, this is delivered. It’s one of the most visually spectacular musicals I’ve ever been to, with large set pieces designed by Tim Goodchild – giant candy canes, the Empire State building and Rockefeller Centre ice rink – that glide seamlessly on and off stage, and a large screen at the back playing animated designs that extends the action beyond the confines of the stage. The final scene – when Santa’s illuminated sleigh takes flight above the front rows – is a jaw-dropping festive finish.
The musical numbers look and sound great too, with tap routines, great vocals across the board and a stunning sound from the live band. But it often feels like style over substance – none of the songs are particularly catchy, and there isn’t a jingle bell or a Christmas carol spin off to be heard anywhere.
The dialogue needs work too – many of the scenes between songs are clunky and awkward, with American accents that lack consistency. Certainly it would benefit from being edited down – the first half alone lasts one hour twenty minutes, and the total run time is over two and a half hours, which is far too long for a family show.
One thing Elf does nail is the laughs. Ben Forster does not disappoint as Buddy, throwing shredded paper over his father’s employees with giddy cries of ‘snow!’ The opening number in Santa’s workshop sees the adult ensemble dressed as elves dancing on their knees, which is surprisingly funny. Possibly the biggest laugh of the night comes from conductor Jeremy Wootton’s cameo from the orchestra pit, donning a knitted hat with a long horn to become the narwhal who wishes Buddy luck on his journey.
Elf is a mostly enjoyable show that’s pretty to look at and full of laughs, but in my opinion it isn’t impressive enough all round to justify the marked up price tag.