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The Grotto at Drayton Arms Theatre

This show seemed to divide the audience, probably because of its style of humour: some were chortling away at almost every punchline, and others barely reacted at all. It’s not for the fainthearted – groaning could be heard at one point, and not because there was a lame joke – and it doesn’t often do subtlety, either, with the inclusion of lines one would reasonably expect to hear at a panto. Pete (Toby Hampton) and Leyla (Laurel Marks) used to be a pair – they split, for reasons revealed in the storyline, but are evidently still on speaking times, working together in the grotto of the show’s title.

The Grotto at Drayton Arms TheatrePete, however, hates Christmas, and it’s not until much later in the show that the audience discovers why he’s agreed to play Father Christmas in a grotto, given his dislike of the festive season. About as many elements of the plot are convincing as others are fantastical, and I couldn’t quite get my head around why ‘half-time’ was called (more or less halfway through). Proceedings didn’t stop and the dialogue carried on. There came a point, although in hindsight I can’t pinpoint precisely when, I gave up trying to make sense of it all and just went with the flow.

What I will call the prologue was a good example with regards to the point I began with. The repetitive nature of grottoing (if there is such a word) was, for me, overdone, whilst some others laughed at every iteration of every round – pop the incoming child’s name on the board, invite them in, guide them to Santa, take a photo, let them make a wish, give them a present, usher them out, wipe the board clean. I suppose there was some irony in Pete’s broad smiles for the camera when he evidently isn’t actually having the time of his life. But it’s what happens after the last gift has been handed out that makes the show interesting. The Angel (Bryan Pilkington), having been there all along, only makes his presence known after hours. He does go by another name, which he prefers, but as it isn’t listed in the programme, I’ll keep faith with the creatives and stick with The Angel.

There’s much talk of ‘the Christmas spirit’, always suffixed whenever The Angel says those words with the ringing of jingle bells – Leyla and Pete have apparently lost theirs, and The Angel has taken it upon himself to ensure they do what is necessary to get their Christmas spirits back. Whoever would have thought that it doesn’t, after all, require the visitation of three ghosts, one at a time, to accomplish this? Two stories effectively run in parallel, one involving The Angel’s quest, which, upon further questioning from Leyla and Pete, transpires is something other than re-establishing the Christmas spirit, and the other about Leyla and Pete themselves, and how they got to where they are now.

Despite the laughs, of which there are plenty, there is some emotional depth in the plot’s twists and turns, with some playful exploration of Leyla and Pete’s childhoods, what made her fall in love with him in the first place, and what made her fall out of love with him. Revelations about their pasts are seemingly random but undoubtedly help the audience get to know them better: at the same time, they discover more about each other, and it very much feels like the audience is processing each bombshell in their own minds as the other character is reacting to them. The play’s conclusion is an intriguing one, leaving it open-ended as to how the pair finally leave the grotto in one piece, if indeed they do. The sound and lighting effects are slick and impressive, and while there are some frankly absurd moments during the show, this bold and brash production has a lot going for it.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

“Merry Christmas… you pr*cks!”
Leyla & Pete work in a Santa’s Grotto.
Leyla & Pete have lost their Christmas spirit.
Leyla & Pete, if we’re honest, didn’t really have any to begin with.
Shackled together only a few months after their relationship came to an end, they are paid a visit by an impish & irreverent Christmas angel, bestowed upon them to help rediscover their lost Christmas spirit… or so he says!!
Together, Leyla and Pete must face a series of ghastly, gruesome and inconveniently Christmassy challenges as they desperately attempt to save their wretched souls. The world premiere of this lightning-paced, laugh-a-minute Christmas comedy treat.

Cast: Leyla Laurel Marks
Pete Toby Hampton
The Angel Bryan Pilkington
Creatives: Director Matthew Parker
Stage Manager Summer Keeling
Production Manager Gianluca Zona

Listings Information
By Toby Hampton
The Drayton Arms Theatre
153 Old Brompton Rd,
London, SW5 0LJ
13 – 30 Dec 2022

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