Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 5 December, 2007

Anthony Neilson believes in keeping his audience interested and entertained. That could sound like the most conservative of theatrical credos, mere lip-service to dignify safe, unadventurous fare. The actual result is anything but. For Neilson's yardstick is what interests him and the cast with whom he works in rehearsals, gleaning ideas and relationships from them, writing and rewriting as he goes along. As soon as he feels he has done all he can with a particular set-up, he will either jolt it on to a radical new track or else abandon it entirely, as happens a handful of times in this 90-minute piece.

To be sure, it feels ragged and undisciplined when the house lights blaze up as the action is interrupted by a probably ghostly (and certainly metatheatrical) Gulf War veteran, confronting us with the modern reality of the Christmas beggar. It is scarcely less tenuous when the reformed, cheerful Scrooge, a character in protagonist Brian's stalled screenplay, visits Brian to steer him through a series of magical flashbacks in his quest to contact his daughter for Christmas against his ex-wife's wishes. It suggests a form of attention deficit disorder. But the crucial point is that it keeps working as theatre, a live experience that enlists us in playing around with different modes, registers and levels.

Neilson normally works with a known pool of actors; for this RSC commission, however, he was given an unfamiliar company of eleven, all male, resulting in a more blokish piece than his average. Drunkenness, cybersex, media satire (Brian produces a reality TV show called Chimp Monastery!) and the crisis in early-middle-aged masculinity are all present and predictably incorrect. The company includes two of my favourite Northern Irish actors, Patrick O'Kane and Sean Kearns... but I never thought I'd see them playing Bob Cratchit and an unbearably merry Scrooge as in the opening scene, still less that by the end they would metamorphose, in a hilariously accurate coup de théâtre, into a couple of virtual-reality avatars, with Kearns resembling an anthropomorphised Pepe Le Pew in puce Lycra. Every year the competition gets tougher for the most "alternative" yet none the less faithfully seasonal Christmas show; I think the 2007 round has found its winner already.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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