ARTS & CULTURE
The Thursford Christmas Spectacular
I used to spot them from a mile off when they walked into the pub — usually a family, sometimes grandparents and young children full of excitement. People travel for miles and miles to go to the Thursford Christmas Spectacular, often making a weekend out of it — staying in a local pub or B&B.
Thursford’s website describes the show as “an extravaganza of non-stop singing, dancing, music, humour and variety. It’s a fast moving celebration of the festive season featuring an eclectic mix of both seasonal and year round favourites.”
Now, for the first time in my life, I am joining the horde of people flocking to the dot on the map in north Norfolk. I have heard many things.
“It is the most magical show for everyone.”
“I just couldn’t stop grinning for the entire show.”
“You will be overwhelmed by Christmas!”
Flocks of grandparents with small children flood through the gates while tour groups disembark coaches, and hordes of other guests are directed to parking spots. Guests are greeted by an animatronic polar bear, slowly turning its head to acknowledge children passing by and pointing.
An orderly queue snakes out of the performance space — its inhabitants eagerly snapping photos of the elaborately lit trees and ornamental deer. My head is reeling, swivelling in every direction, just trying to grasp everything unfolding in front of my eyes.
Filing into the performance space, the stage stretches on for an age — there can’t be a bad seat in the house. Carousel horses adorned in tinsel are suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by bright lights and other bedazzled decorations.
It’s hard to decide where to look, when you think you have spotted everything, you hear another voice pointing something else out — “have you seen the gondola in the corner?”
We find our seats and settle in for the three hour show. The bustling, festive audience is already high on mince pies and mulled wine, ready to be entertained.
Performers file in from the back of the auditorium. The lights dim, and the show begins.
Cast members take the stage in sparkly dresses, choir outfits, Santa suits and too many more to mention.The space is so large and heavily decorated, it is hard to decide where to look. Every audience member will have a different experience due to the sheer size of the space.
More than 1,400 audience members can be seated in the hangar-sized auditorium. This year, the organisers have requested people to attend when double vaccinated, and with a lateral flow test, although no proof is required. The ventilation systems have also been upgraded to provide a safe environment in which to enjoy the show.
The first act flies by — an eclectic blur of song, dance, spoken word, acrobatics and comedy flash across the stage – the audience rapt with attention. From the moment the bagpipes begin playing, the show is delivered with sheer, unbridled enthusiasm.
Describing the content of the show is somewhat tricky, as it truly has something for everyone. It skips quickly from choral arrangements, to readings, to dance numbers. It is hard to pick a favourite moment.
Kev Orkian, the comedian, piano player and host of the evening drew endless laughs from the audience. The Britain’s Got Talent veteran joked about his Armenian heritage and bantered back and forth with the audience.
Kev’s line that received the biggest round of applause however, was not in response to a joke. He proudly announced that 500 NHS heroes were in the audience that night. Following the intermission, he revealed that another audience member had paid for the NHS workers to enjoy a drink at the bar.
Later in the show, Kev performed on the piano, his hand flying deftly over the keys. He was still delivering laughs — impersonating a scratchy CD of Elton John. The musical act that stole the show, however, was undoubtedly Phill Kelsall on the Wurlitzer Organ. He is one of few players left in the UK, and he more than did the instrument justice.
Possibly the most diverse performers in the show were the dancers. They appeared in countless costumes and demonstrated a variety of styles of dance. Perhaps one of the standout moments was a rigid toy soldier dance which culminated in the line of dancers collapsing in slow motion, with each dancer trusting their teammate to catch them.
The team spirit was evident throughout the show, with many of the singers stepping out for a solo before being joined by a large group of backup singers. The whole cast radiated energy throughout both acts — especially during “Be Our Guest,” in the second act, during which performers appeared from every corner of the space in droves, belting out the catchy tune.
Throughout the 3-hour spectacle, the audience was captivated. They gasped at Billy George on the Cyr Wheel, and sang along to the Christmas carols. As we shuffled back out of the theatre, everyone was reliving their favourite moments, and discussing every detail — right down to the doves released at the end of the performance.
In the days following the show, I have struggled to describe it to my friends and family. I am so glad to have experienced the show that garners so much praise from visitors and locals. It truly is something to behold, and I won’t be forgetting the standout moments any time soon.
Kev Orkian summed up the atmosphere — and evening — with ease: “Ladies and gentlemen, isn’t it fantastic to be back watching live entertainment?!”
Stephen Adnitt has been the costume designer for Thursford Christmas Spectacular since 2013, working alongside a team of milliners and costume makers.
“Personally I love the whole feeling of the show and of course its glamour – lots of sparkle,” Stephen said. “It is so good to be able to create those wonderful glamorous images on stage that evoke Christmas.”
The show has a range of traditional and modern sections that allow Stephen to design a large variety of costumes. He said the show, which features more than 110 dancers, singers and musicians, is amazing and glamorous.
There are so many costume changes, it is hard to keep track of how many flash across the stage. Countless sequins and sparkles, hats and hemlines and, of course, quick changes.
Stephen said he has so many wonderful memories of working on the how and can’t wait to continue into the next season.
“I feel audiences are overwhelmed when they see the show as I was when I first saw it before working on it,” Stephen said.
Natalie Davis performs as a dancer in the show, as well as leading 22 other dancers in the role of dance captain. This is her eleventh season at Thursford, and this year she is a ‘swing’ dancer as well, covering 18 dance tracks.
“There is so much variety in the show,” Natalie said. “As dancers we get trained in so many different styles, from showgirl, to cancan to Irish and we even join the singers for some vocals!”
Being able to perform so many different styles of dance all in one show is one of Natalie’s favourite aspects of the show. She also loves being able to leave the stage and dance amongst the audience.
The team behind the show is a big, diverse community that all come together to create a special show.
“Everyone comes from different places, even internationally, have built different careers and have a multitude of talents that all come together for the show,” Natalie said.
The dancers begin training and rehearsals in September. Rehearsing onsite in what Natalie nicknamed, “the shed,” plants Christmas spirit long before the season begins. Due to an intense show, the dancers are constantly stretching and keeping warm, and are scheduled for extra training with the creative team, to prevent injury.
After the Thursford season, Natalie will first spend Christmas with her family, before heading back to London where she works as a freelance dancer, choreographer and photographer. She said she is very grateful and excited to see the industry start up again.
For first-time viewers of the show, Natalie had some advice: “This is a show unlike any other, filled with more than I can say…there’s something for everyone and more! Arrive early as there is so much to see before the show even begins.”
“Oh and Christmas jumpers are most definitely welcome! We love spotting them in the audience!”