I close my eyes and can see only sequins. In a field in Norfolk, every inch of an old barn is covered in excessively garish Christmas glitz. Carousel horses dangle from the ceiling and a harp is tucked between two enormous snowmen. The annual Thursford Christmas Spectacular, which must be using the entire country’s reserves of rhinestones and fairy lights, started as a small carol concert 43 years ago. Under John Cushing’s direction, it has grown into a staggering, glittering, screwball revue; a festive fever-dream of outrageous talent and suffocating joy.
For the last two months of the year, the steam engines that normally form the family-run Thursford Collection (founded by Cushing’s father) are pushed aside, covered in fake snow and straddled by animatronic polar bears. Focus is redirected to the 45 metre-long stage that hosts 150 performers with a bewildering cannonball variety of acts: nail-biting roller-skating, camp a cappella, angelic carols, a hoedown, aerial silks and – by this stage, sense is drunk and passed out in the corner – a bagpipe accompaniment to Billy George’s spinning-top cyr wheel. Phil Kelsall’s hands are a hurricane on his remarkable wurlitzer organ and the choir gives a rousing performance of Phantom’s Masquerade.
Credit to the backstage crew, as smooth transitions and endless sound and costume changes are managed with military precision. To think we’re experiencing this twinkling delirium while surrounded by pitch-black fields is mind-boggling.
But the wealth of talent lacks warmth; it’s all awe and no emotion. The shiny surface-charm of the factory-manufactured pleasure dulls over time, and there’s a vaguely sickly sense as dances repeatedly offer the women as a homogenous mass of pretty playthings, while the sleazy grandfather puppet of our ventriloquist compere, Steve Hewlett, drools over audience members.
The second half of the extravaganza allows the dynamic orchestra to have the most fun, their grins seeming genuine rather than plastered on, whereas for the singers and dancers, the Spectacular feels more like a festive West End boot camp.
It is, no doubt, an astonishing event. But by the time we’ve got to the finale with real doves shooting across the audience, we are dizzy; tired children crashing from the sugar rush. This overdose of Christmas cheer needs to be seen to be believed, but seen just the once is quite enough.
•At Thursford Collection, Norfolk, until 23 December.