For anybody unfamiliar with The Late Late Toy Show – which is to say, anyone who has severed all diplomatic and cultural ties to Ireland – it can be hard to offer up any kind of adequate description.
“So it’s an ad?” asked the Marxist critic I married on her first introduction. “The most consumerist programme ever created?” Well, sort of. In outline, it does sound bizarre: a near compulsory national celebration of potential Christmas presents which unfurls live, in a hot panic, featuring musical numbers – this time opening with The Little Mermaid’s Under The Sea, shimmering with mermaids and marine life – and almost lethal levels of cuteness.
But unlike post-Communist countries that had materialism suddenly thrust upon them, Ireland really had to fight for the stuff. Besides, beyond anything, the Toy Show is a fantastic display of wary Irish consumers looking gift horses squarely in the mouth. Ferociously invested children sound out toys for strengths or hollows with zero pity, the way Twitter treats the Toy Show, actually.
In a winning concession to the importance of fairytales during Christmas, it is presented, for the ninth year running, by a very ebullient beanstalk called Ryan Tubridy.
To be honest, having winnowed thousands of hopeful children to just the 240 who appear tonight (it seems like more, doesn’t it?) even Ryan seems grateful to have made the cut.
Or as grateful as a man can be who is obliged to open the show in a giant orange lobster costume with a top hat.
According to the theme, we are immersed in the life aquatic, buoyed by hot-pink squids, multi-coloured starfish, iridescent seahorses and an assortment of sea urchins from Spotlight Stage School. Advance word had promised Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid as its theme, but the show is resolutely more Disneyfied.
“There’s something fishy about this endeavour. I’m not codding you….” Tubridy starts, drowning in puns. The set, aquamarine and rippling with light, is already a paradise of trinkets and tchotchkes.
Unicorns, we learn during an avalanche of the things, are making a comeback, as are copycat talking dolls. The Jo Jo Bow, a garish hair tie, is proudly affixed to Tubridy, who is a professional sport about it. “It’s going to be a long night,” he tells us. At least the boy knows how to accessorise.
Still, things gets real early, and not just because Michael D Higgins is represented onstage as a wooly tea cosy ("Not actual size" quips Tubridy).
We see a miniature hearth, Santa’s Magical Fireplace, which Tubridy explains will allow Santa access to temporary accommodations for those without permanent addresses. “They might be in a hotel, or somewhere they shouldn’t be, and they’re our friends too.”
An effervescent Lila is right where she ought to be, guiding Tubridy through the current fixations of the tween market: the showering dolls, the flying ponies and, less exotically, the hotdog vans. An irrepressible tyke named Tadhg gets to make an entrance in a Batmobile and Tubridy recognises that, for most men, life will never get better than that.
Later, however, when a young car enthusiast called Bobby is surprised with a real-life DeLorean, some experiences run a close second.
The Toy Show begins as it means to continue, with touching displays by St Mary’s Signing Choir on True Colours, Baby Swift Dolls for everyone in the audience, and a surprisingly practical exposition of farm-related toys by Kyle from Westmeath (who even gets to herd Ryan like a recalcitrant calf).
Soon someone even persuades Tubridy into a Christmas jumper, the first of a series, emblazoned with festooning Christmas bobbles, which make him seem like a man in quite a comfy motion-capture suit.
For real novelty, though, meet Thomas, the first boy in the country to receive a Lego model of Skellig Michael – or rather the Jedi training ground as it appears in the new Star Wars movies. That seems like the logical endpoint of our pact with Disney to allow filming on the protected craggy outpost: to see our heritage transformed into unobtainable merchandise.
By the time a wide-eyed cluster of singers and musicians emerge to perform Moana’s How Far I Go – sonorous and sweet – I begin to wonder if we may have leased The Toy Show to Disney too, or if perhaps all of childhood has become the intellectual property of the Mouse House.
Thank heavens, then, for Maeve who has both made the dress she is wearing and demonstrates a capacity for creativity beyond products. As though to enforce the point, Tubridy is unimpressed with the Shaker Baker he has manfully mishandled. “Remind me not to buy it,” he tells her. Take that, capitalism!
You may get an uncanny sense that the kids on the Toy Show are growing up before your very eyes, while adults revert to childhood.
Disney songs are traded for an all-inclusive ensemble performing saccharine club hit Clean Bandit’s Symphony, and later Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl, while Tubridy delves into a tow truck of nostalgia, filled with toys from the 1980s.
It’s worth remembering, as Tubridy receives a pampering makeover or takes a guided tour around the upper mezzanine of a Barbie doll house, that here is the first Late Late Show presenter to have actually grown up with the Toy Show.
One of the reasons he hosts it well, with the necessary enthusiasm for mess and a commitment to silliness, is that he has the same appreciation for its importance that Charlie had for the Chocolate Factory. “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted,” says Wonka. “He lived happily ever after.”
But the awareness of this year’s show, which nudges routinely at the property crisis and the spectre of child homelessness (and in which Tubridy mentions recession more than once) is that happiness is unequally distributed and often in horrifically short supply.
You might find the holiday sprung on Mia, a girl living with her family and her grandparents “because my Mum can’t get a house”, or the young family reunited on air with their military father, Graham Burke, stationed in Mali, a tad obvious in their efforts to warm the hearts of the land. But you’d need a very cold heart to be unmoved.
That’s one of the reasons The Late Late Toy Show is more than an extended advertisement, a first draft of the nation’s letter to Santa. It’s a cascade of hopes and contentments, like the Galway kid who came to test run a video game, but gets to hold the Liam McCarthy cup stunned to meet the triumphant Galway Hurling team.
Hopes can also be as simple as sharing scenes of cheer and warmth, or that Christmas ideal of people getting to spend time together, content and safe. That’s as good a model of national unity as you’re likely to find these days: the same people, watching the same thing, at the same time.