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The Season review – musical romcom hits a feelgood festive note | Stage

On Christmas Eve, puppyish twentysomething Englishman Dougal lands in New York for the first time. But, when he meets a young woman barista called, with calendar cuteness, Robin, theatre-goers may feel like jaded travellers, especially when she brusquely rejects a romance.

If this were not a two-character musical, we’d expect to find Richard Curtis standing at customs asking if the writers wanted to declare an influence. My Scrooge reflex hardened when the first two numbers sought space in super-crowded sections of the songbook: New York, an anthem to the Big Apple, and Dad, with the lad imagining a reunion with a father who emigrated there.

Soon, though, this first produced show by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, who take co-credits for music, lyrics and script, leaves us as wrong-footed as novices on the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink.

In retrospect, Dougal’s opening tunes deliberately reflect expectations of Manhattan and family shaped by soppy movies. Beginning with Tinder, a swipe at hook-up apps, the score is fresh and clever.

Under the Mistletoe astringently deconstructs the cliches of wintry hits, and two-tone duets, with the singers taking starkly different parts, emerge as a Barne-Buchan speciality.

Tori Allen-Martin’s Robin and Alex Cardell’s Dougal are engaging individually and electrifying together, able to land spoken punchlines and carry tunes that range through ballad, torch song and a cappella to a row against a drum thump. Amy Jane Cook’s set features neat recycling (a subway map doubles as a bed), and Tim Jackson’s sprightly direction, culminating in a great sight gag in a Chinese restaurant, keeps the relationship with romcom sentimentality always more curt than Curtis.

While a warm but smart show with a performing payroll of two seems set to be a Christmas gift that keeps on giving for theatrical accountants, there will be nothing parsimonious about the pleasure for audiences.

Inevitably, fake snow falls at the end, but, by then, it’s clear that, in the often barren genre of British musicals, Barne and Buchan are the real thing.

At the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until 30 November.

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