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Anthony Neilson’s The Night Before Christmas at Southwark Playhouse

L - R Unique Spencer, Dan Starkey and Douggie McMeekin - photo credit Darren Bell.
L – R Unique Spencer, Dan Starkey and Douggie McMeekin – photo credit Darren Bell.

It will come as no surprise to you that some people don’t like Christmas. Not so much the Bah Humbug Society, but the stresses and strains associated with it, the enforced time that people feel obliged to spend with relatives with whom they simply do not get along, and the cost, both financially and emotionally, for those with responsibilities for making the ‘big day’ go (more or less) according to plan. The Night Before Christmas is an intriguing and hilarious take on the festive season, and while there’s more than the usual suspension of disbelief at the theatre door required, there’s also healthy doses of realism that keep permeating the narrative.

Gary (Douggie McMeekin) works in a warehouse and Elf (Dan Starkey) apparently breaks in. Quite why he has broken into a warehouse on Christmas Eve isn’t, as far as I can recall, one of the many questions asked of him. Gary’s friend Simon (Michael Salami), persuaded to come to the warehouse to see for himself that Gary is not making the incident up, wants to call the police, but Elf is, well, an employee of an ‘international gift distribution agency’, or so he says. Later in this one-act play, Cherry (Unique Spencer) turns up, one of Gary’s customers in more ways than one, to collect the Christmas present for her son that Gary promised he would procure – her direct, no-nonsense approach hypes up the entertainment value in a storyline that becomes increasingly absurd.

The production did put me into a false sense of familiarity before it started, with traditional renditions of seasonal carols being played. It’s bookended with brief nightclub scenes, for reasons explained in the show, and in between, amongst other things, Elf gives some details about how Santa’s helpers contribute to the festive season. There are liberal doses of strong language, which would not in themselves put off any children that would happen to be in the audience (most if not all the terms used can be heard in school playgrounds in any event) but still: this is not a family show.

When Elf puts forward the idea that he could grant each of the other three one wish, had they been children, they would have made their minds up pretty quickly, however absurd their wishes have been. Instead, there is far too much deliberation and dithering, like those contestants on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? who spend so long answering a question that the show goes to a commercial break before it is revealed whether their answer is correct.

Such is human nature, portrayed vividly and humorously in a play that pulls few punches. If Channel Four Television does ‘The Alternative Christmas Message’, then this show is ‘The Alternative Christmas Production’. Instead of a portly Father Christmas, there’s a frustrated elf. There’s not even any food on the table. Come to think of it, there isn’t even a table. Rightly or wrongly though, there are still glimmers of hope, perhaps because the characters feel that at the (both literal and metaphorical) eleventh hour before Christmas Day, they haven’t much to lose. The explanation as to why children can be more fascinated with the packaging that a present comes in than the present itself is surprisingly convincing.

Those who love Christmas might like this play, and those who hate Christmas might at least identify with some of the proceedings. The festive spirit breaks through in the end, though not in the traditional sense. Brought up to date since its first incarnation (which the programme lists as being in December 1995), there’s even an acknowledgement of the war on plastics. An equally unsettling and joyous production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Revived for the first time by director Alex Sutton, this hilarious and razor-edged comedy about finding the true spirit of Christmas is more than just a merry romp; it’s an un-merry extravaganza jam-packed with drugs, debauchery and dirty jokes, all rolled in glitter. A brilliantly dark mash-up of South Park and Miracle on 34th Street by way of Scrooged, it follows the story of Gary, who is just not feeling the Christmas spirit this year. He’s promised his son some Power Rangers figures that he’s absolutely not able to deliver and now his ex-wife is on the warpath, plus some tiny fool has broken into his warehouse; now he and his grumpy best mate Simon must save Christmas itself.

Starring Douggie McMeekin (HBO’s Chernobyl), Michael Salami (Hollyoaks), Unique Spencer (2017 Spotlight Prize nominee) and Dan Starkey (Doctor Who, Inside Number 9).

Citric Acid Productions, in association with Arden Entertainment present
The Night Before Christmas
by Anthony Neilson
28 NOV – 29 DEC 2018
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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