Christmas is one of the happiest times of the year, or so they say. The reality is that for many people it is a depressing time, and this is really brought to life in Simon Stephens’ “Christmas” at the White Bear Theatre. This is not a cheerful tale of good friends celebrating the festive season with mulled wine, mince pies and Aled Jones warbling in the background. Instead we are transformed to a run-down East End pub on Saturday the 18th December 1999. And this was the first surprise of the evening. Walking from the White Bear’s bar through a door into another, far dingier hostelry was quite surreal. However, having spent a lot of time around the Tredagar/Roman Road area myself, the set was instantly familiar and I felt at home with the red and gold wallpaper and ‘dodgy’ Xmas decorations of a small, down on its luck, pub.
It’s the start of the trading day and publican Michael (William Ely) enters having just picked up the post. It’s obvious the Postie hasn’t delivered good news and Michael opens the pub looking less like a jovial picture of the welcoming host and more like a man resigned to his fate. Unfortunately for him, Michael’s fate revolves around his ‘regulars’ including Billy Lee (Ralph Aiken) a 29 year old, not too bright, self-employed hod carrier, still living at home with his mother. As if his life wasn’t bad enough, Billy also supports West Ham and his team have once again lost on this particular Saturday. The other regular is a complete contrast. Urbane, debonair Italian barber Guiseppe (Lionel Guyett) looks almost out of place in the run-down surroundings but obviously loves his visits to the pub and his interactions with Michael and Billy.
This is it for Michael then. Just him and two customers on the Saturday before Christmas – a sign the pub isn’t doing so well from the gentrification of the East End, where coffee/wine bars have become the watering holes of choice for the ‘new’ locals. Michael, Billy and Guiseppe chew the fat, giving us, the audience, a chance to get to know the boys and their various stories. Every so often a ‘customer’ comes in and although I did learn a wonderful way to blag a free pint by using the world’s worst magic trick, none of them actually buy anything. That is, until a postman drops by.
Charlie (James Groom) is a man brimming with good cheer after an unexpected win on the horses that very afternoon. Wanting to share his luck, Charlie buys the boys a drink or two. As you would expect from a postman with a cello case and a wad of cash, Charlie is messed up – affable but on a knife’s edge emotionally, he dominates the conversation from his introduction asking an amazingly personal question of Michael, to telling a truly awful joke about rabbits, you never really know where Charlie is going to go. James Groom plays this brilliantly, making superb use of his eyes to produce a truly psychotic stare that actually freaked me out whenever I looked at him. As the action moves on, the mixture of alcohol and atmosphere mean truths come out – mainly from Charlie who has a knack of understanding his drinking buddies and telling them things about themselves that they probably don’t want to hear. This culminates in an explosive scene that surprises and shocks in equal measure.
Simon Stephens is an amazing playwright. He knows how to stop his tale getting too heavy without breaking the atmosphere – watch out for the guy and his half pint of bitter. He also manages to constantly surprise as he manipulates the audience into thinking one thing is going to happen then doing something completely different. For example I sat there smugly convinced I knew the ending to the play way before the finish. I was of course totally wrong and completely blindsided by the final scene where Michael, alone and without any words, holds the attention of every member of the audience as he contemplates and decides upon his future. Full credit for this has to go to the superb direction of Michael Kingsbury delivered in a fantastic performance by William Ely.
Talking about the play and the characters afterwards, my companion and I spent ages speculating on the futures of Michael, Charlie, Billy and Guiseppe. People that we met and got to know in a run-down pub we happened to drop in to a week before Christmas. People we are so happy came into our lives. Good luck guys and Happy Christmas.
Review by Terry Eastham
Spellbound Productions in association with The White Bear Theatre presents CHRISTMAS
By Simon Stephens
Director Michael Kingsbury
Designer Joanna Dias
Christmas by Simon Stephens
A week before Christmas in an East-End pub, hard–bitten landlord Michael Macraw awaits the arrival of his customers. In comes local misfit Billy–Lee Russell, local barber Guiseppe Rossi and a series of mysterious punters performing magic tricks. Last of all comes Charlie Anderson: ex-classical-musician-turned-postman who seeks to unearth the regulars’ deepest secrets. As the evening progresses and the drink flows it emerges that one of them has a secret he dare not share…
A hidden gem by acclaimed playwright Simon Stephens, revived by Spellbound Productions and The White Bear Theatre, Christmas explores the lives and obsessions of four souls in the city as they confront their pasts and prepare for their futures. It is the story of hope, disappointment, the abandonment of dreams and the need to move on and face what is ahead.
William Ely as Michael Macraw
Ralph Aiken as Billy Lee Russell
Lionel Guyett as Guiseppe Rossi
James Groom as Charlie Anderson
White Bear Theatre
138 Kennington Park Rd
25th November – 20th December, 2014.
Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm,
Sunday at 6pm
Tickets: £14 (£10 concessions)
Box Office: 0844 8700 887
Saturday 29th November 2014