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Review of Christmas by Simon Stephens at Theatre N16

Christmas Poster Theatre N16The rather unimaginatively titled Christmas does, at least, provide an alternative scenario to the near-relentless cheery moods so many productions specifically put on in December like to create. For various reasons, there are people out there for whom the festive period will be anything but celebratory, perhaps because it is the anniversary of the loss of someone very close or otherwise because it involves spending time with disagreeable people still with us. For some, it will be both, and what bad fortune that is.

In this East End pub, business is slow. As a backdrop to the play, it works. The sparse attendance in the pub allows the audience to clearly hear the conversations, and accommodates pathos and dramatic effect. Michael McGraw (Brendan Weakliam), slightly better-spoken than most pub landlords I have come across, is clearly frustrated, though it’s not immediately clear why. Billy Lee Russell (Jack Bence) waxes lyrical about virtually anything, and cannot help but swear at least twice between each intake of breath. It wasn’t offensive, really – with a post-watershed start time of 9pm I was in an unshockable mood in any event – but it proved boring after a while.

Some of the topics of conversation were implausible for pub banter, even between men who have known one another for some years, and it is only with the arrival of Charlie Anderson (Christopher Sherwood) that the play becomes properly intriguing. Before that, the audience is treated to what the programme lists as Fat Man (Tom Telford), providing some comic relief from the rather depressing dialogue. His stay in the pub is brief but bizarre, as are later visits from Eccentric Man, and Lost Dog Man (both also Tom Telford).

Giuseppe Rossi (Alec Gray) has a manner of speaking both familiar and passionate, as would be reasonably be expected from an Italian gentleman. The blokey-bloke banter was enjoyed, from what I could perceive, by both men and women in the audience. I presume there was an appreciation of the frankness of opinions expressed – crude at times, but refreshing.

A cigarette that is repeatedly lit but doesn’t appear to actually be smoked proved more distracting than was I imagine was intended, and the bright lights shining on the audience before the show never went down as they would ordinarily be expected to, to the point where it overshadowed the stage lighting. There was no breaching of the fourth wall to justify it.

The play is, in a word, Pinteresque. But the narrative meanders too much in the second half, with talk of loyalties to certain football clubs one minute and a deadly serious conversation about a character’s current station in life the next. Giuseppe’s story is told too many times, and when Charlie makes his excuses and calls it a night, the remainder of the show drags, like a mainline train queued up behind others waiting to pull into its terminus station. “It’s been a long night”, muses Giuseppe, a line which for me was true of the show as well as for its proceedings. A disappointing end to an otherwise gritty and hard-hitting production.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

The reality is that Christmas is a depressing time for many. With the aftermath of Brexit and Ukip and Farage and the clear manipulation of the white working class for political gain, Theatre N16 are delighted to produce Simon Stephens Yuletide treat.

One night in an East end pub, four men confront their past and brace themselves for an uncertain future

Directed by Sarah Chapleo.
By Simon Stephens
Starring Jack Bence (Bad Education, Sherlock, Eastenders)
Booking to 22nd December 2016
http://www.theatren16.co.uk/

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