views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Theatre N16
12th December 2016


Publicity image for Christmas

Photography © Andreas Lambis

If you've seen our review of The Snow Queen, you'll know that part one of Theatre N16's double Christmas bill spreads a little seasonal joy. Part two, however, is much gloomier. While it's definitely not one for children, it is well worth watching for everyone else and was my personal favourite of the two shows. Both very strong productions but with a very different target audience.

Christmas, written by Simon Stephens, is set in an Irish pub in the East End. It's not one of those trendy places with Christmas burgers and cocktails; rather it's your slightly shabby, local pub with a few regulars, albeit not many of them nowadays. The wallpaper, chosen by landlord Michael's father when the pub opened, is in great taste apparently and is mentioned a few times throughout the production, but it's not enough to compete with the new, fashionable bars and a shifting local demographic. Consequently, Michael (Brendan Weakliam) has a growing debt problem to deal with as well as a troubled personal life.

The changes seen in the local population (aka gentrification) are something regular customer Giuseppe (Alec Gray) understands all too well. He has been having similar problems in his barber’s shop as clients turn to the new hair surgeries and, as widower Giuseppe says, he’s a barber not a surgeon! The other regular is 29-year-old Billy (Jack Bence), a not-so-bright, manual labourer who goes round the building sites looking for work and who still lives with his mum (though building is at least one trade that is booming thanks to all the new sandwich shops). Although very different people, Michael, Giuseppe and Billy all have loneliness and a difficult past and present in common and they have built up a great bond.

The three men are deep in discussion about their troubles (and those of football team West Ham) when they are interrupted by an outsider, the deep-thinking, former classical musician and current postman Charlie (Christopher Sherwood). His arrival shakes things up as he asks the men tough questions about their lives and brings home a few truths. It turns out though that Charlie also has his own incredibly tragic tale to tell.

Although this is definitely not a cheerful play, it's a good reminder that some people have a hard time at Christmas. When Michael tells Charlie that he'll soon know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone (it will be Charlie's first time in this predicament), it really drives the message home. However, it's not all heavy. There are also some good, comic moments in the production, both from the four protagonists and also Tom Telford, who plays "Fat Man/Eccentric Man/Lost Dog Man" according to the cast list. These odd characters - and they are all odd - come into the pub at various points, breaking up the main plot and stopping the play from becoming too dark. There is also something slightly haunting about these men though, as you can't help but wonder what their own stories are.

This is an excellent production in every regard. The script by Stephens is beautifully written and on point. While the play is set in the 1990s rather than today, the only real clue is Giuseppe's discussion of his childhood. The topics and issues remain as pertinent now as they were then, with changes continuing at a startling pace and ever more sandwich shops. All five actors are strong and bring their own styles to the performance. I found myself completely absorbed throughout and genuinely cared about the men and their problems, which speaks volumes about both the acting and the writing. I also appreciated the little details from director Sarah Chapleo. For example, on the wall the "Merry Christmas" sign is broken so that the "Merry" part has fallen down. This is probably true of so many pubs, and yet here it cleverly foreshadows the events in the play. The pub itself also feels very realistic, with rows of bottles behind the bar. I didn't have to try very hard to soak up the atmosphere.

This is a must-see show, with plenty to offer everyone (except children, seriously do remember to send them home after part one of the Christmas double bill). The production is meaningful, highly relevant and touching, and it leaves you with a lot to think about.

Christmas opened on 11th December and runs until 22nd December 2016 at Theatre N16.

Nearest tube station: Balham (Northern)

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