Jingle all the way
14th November 2023
Harriet Cooper is dazzled and delighted by this year’s Thursford Christmas Spectacular
The entrance to the Thursford Christmas Spectacular, though pretty and twinkly, gives little away in terms of what is to come. As I walk into the 1400-capacity auditorium, home to Europe’s biggest festive extravaganza, it takes my breath away. The Steam Museum has been transformed into a shimmering, shining, spangling wonderland. Illuminated garlands and carousel horses hang from the ceiling, the steam engines and fairground rides are decked in thousands of fairylights – everywhere I look, it’s a sea of sparkle, glitter and happy faces.
And then there’s the 130ft stage, which for the next three hours plays host to an assembled cast of over 120 singers, dancers, orchestra and speciality acts in a packed variety performance of seasonal and year-round favourites. After being told to “sit back, uncross our arms and enjoy the show”, we’re off, with the choir singing Christmas classics before a chorus line of dancers high-kick in impeccable synchronicity in gold sequins and incredible green headdresses (the feathers alone cost £45,000).
For 180 minutes, it’s a whirl of non-stop entertainment. There are carols and a cappella, nail-biting roller skating and mountain biking stunts, a brilliant juggling duo, rousing musical numbers, bagpipers and comedy from compere Lloyd Hollett, who has the audience in stitches. Highlights? There are so many! But one has to be when five giant screens come down and we’re treated to a close-up of Phil Kelsall (who is resident at the iconic Blackpool Tower Ballroom) playing the Wurlitzer organ, his fingers flying across the keys. The talent throughout this show is remarkable: the 32-piece orchestra is flawless and the singers and dancers – who come from far and wide – exceptional.
And it’s not just the performers which make the Spectacular dazzle. Over 400 people have worked towards creating this year’s show and the attention to detail is in plain sight, from the lavish costumes (there are 3000 in each production) to the atmospheric lighting. There’s a new state-of-the-art sound system in place too, as good as anything you’d find in the West End, creating a more immersive experience for the audience.
The pacing of the whole production is spot on – one minute we’re caught up in a flurry of dancing snowmen, the next the choir are sending shivers down my spine with their rendition of Silent Night. Mind you, Director and Producer John Cushing OBE has plenty of experience – he’s worked on every show for over 46 years. It’s certainly come a long way since he organised a one-off carol concert in an old farm shed in 1977, for a crowd of 500. Now, approximately 120,000 visitors come every year to see the Spectacular.
This being Thursford, the festive fun doesn’t end there. The Enchanted Journey of Light (which can be done separately or as an add-on with the Spectacular) is a trail which starts in the Fantasyland Building, where animatronic polar bears, penguins and teddy bears star in a series of snowclad scenes, culminating with a peek inside Santa’s toy factory where the elves are hard at work. You can, of course, also book a visit to Father Christmas in his grotto. You’ll then follow the path outside to a field of luminous sculptures that makes me stop and stare in wonder. Best done as dusk falls, you’ll see huge, illuminated animals and underwater creatures, exotic flowers and butterflies, made all the more magical with the accompanying music. A funfair and outside bar selling mulled wine and refreshments is the icing on the cake of Thursford’s epic, kaleidoscopic take on Christmas. Will I be back next year? You bet.
Thursford Christmas Spectacular runs until 23 December, with performances at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets cost from £43. To book and for more information, visit www.thursford.com or call 01328 878477