‘Christmas. What a cunt.‘
No doubt many of us feel like this as some point in the run up to the holidays, but there are those that find this time of year particularly hard. Simon Stephens immortalises a ragtag collection of down-at-heel, working class Londoners in his early-career black comedy, Christmas. Both funny and tragic, the one act play is a fantastic anecdote to typically saccharine holiday theatre and a potent reminder that there are those of us with much less privilege than others.
A week before the holiday, Billy, Seppo and Charlie prop up Michael’s east London boozer. None of them are having an easy time at the moment, nor are the other drinkers that pop in over the course of the evening. These are the East End’s waifs and strays, with no where else to go and no one else who understands them. They find kinship and conflict over their drinks, gradually confessing one secret after another as the empty glasses accumulate. Though the ending lacks any sort of resolution or certainty, the script is a good balance between comedy and provocative seriousness.
The performances are generally consistent, with Jack Bence as bricklayer Billy and Christopher Sherwood as cellist-turned-postie Charlie standing out with their nuance and intensity. Director Sarah Chapleo intuitively takes advantage of the theatre’s former use as a private bar and rearranges the audience to create a more intimate setting. She and her cast have a good instinct for the characters’ varying rhythms and are able to evoke plenty of empathy from the audience.
Though it’s great to see theatre with emotional range and depth framing working class issues, it’s a shame that the narratives here are all straight, white and male. This doesn’t invalidate the stories presented, but class diversity on stage isn’t enough anymore. But despite the unease of an all-white, all-male cast, Christmas still has plenty of impact.
With not everyone able to have a cosy, indulgent holiday season surrounded by warmth, food and loved ones, this play has an important place in Christmas theatre ecology. The production is a particularly strong one with good performances and staging in an intimate space, and has enough humour to counter the misery but still drive the message home.
Christmas runs through 22 December.
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