Even sitting in the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton, I couldn't help imagining that I was watching Christmas by Simon Stephens in the very different space of the Bush Theatre in west London. It's a very Bush play. (It transfers there in the New Year.) In fact, it's a Bush "handful of folk chatting in a pub" play. I know that's far too glib, but the feeling won't be shaken off.
And it tells you what form the piece will take: barman, two or three regulars, increasingly soused and often profane banter, gradual references to personal traumas which may or may not be fully explicated by the end of the evening, usually including a crisis for the bar itself and often brought into the open by a stranger joining the habitués and either innocently or perceptively probing them. In this case, it's two regulars, yes to the stranger (of the insightful variety), and "sort of" as regards full explanation of the various burdens. And, true to form, no real reolution.
So, it's the Saturday before Christmas in Michael's pub in the East End, where hardly anybody drinks any more (although the main proceedings are interrupted by a chain of cameo appearances). Michael, his regulars young Billy and old Guiseppe are joined by cellist-turned-postman Charlie, who... well, you know the rest.
It's tempting to compare and contrast various Nativity-related themes and motifs with these goings-on. None of the men has a conventional family structure, three of them have journeyed far from their homes, there are two absent fathers, Charlie proclaims himself to be "your fucking guardian angel" and indeed seems to have a praeternatural gift for the truth, which he brings to these three unwise men... and so on.
But it's the ordinary aspects that make the production a success or a failure. By and large, it's a success, albeit a modest one. Stephens has a keen ear for demotic yet finely turned phrasing; Jo McInnes directs fluidly. The ingredient that soars above the rest is Paul Ritter as Charlie. Ritter has long specialised in sardonic, deadpan humour with a little added something, but here he responds to Charlie's moods and nuances with one of the performances of his career so far. Yet it's still an ensemble play, so that ultimately he can't lift the entire event single-handedly. Like Christmas itself, it's agreeable but less special than you might anticipate.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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