Live Theatre’s Christmas Crackers is about families in all their formations, real and found. The show is four short plays by the theatre’s associate artists, and like most portmanteaux it is occasionally uneven, though it succeeds more often than it fails.
Clementines (Easy Peeler) by Tamsin Daisy Rees is the sharply written opener about three siblings (Katie Powell, Dale Jewitt and Sarah Balfour) coping with a new family dynamic in the temporary absence of their mother. Directed by Live’s Artistic Director Joe Douglas, it has some lovely moments (the opening scene where a hungover Powell returns home and wearily pulls her bra from her coat pocket got plenty of knowing chuckles from the women in the audience) and some great lines, but would be better served by more restrained performances. Powell and Balfour in particular dial everything up to 11, giving the piece a shoutiness that drowns out much of its emotional nuance.
Daniel Watson and Micky Cochrane are more reined in – to much better effect – in Henry Lawrence’s Grounded (directed by Graeme Thompson). The story of father and son rebuilding their damaged relationship with the unlikely help of a wounded bird in an empty fish and chips box – who does not die! – it’s a slow burning tale that takes a while to find its feet but builds to a sweet, moving and surprisingly funny finale.
The strongest segment of the bunch, Olivia Hannah’s Home for Christmas (again directed by Thompson) is as dry as the best festive martini and elevated by a deliciously deadpan turn from Jewitt as the homeless man claiming to be Santa who Jack (Watson) brings to the Christmas party he is hosting with fellow housemates Amy and Lex (Powell and Balfour). A suitably festive eeriness recalls the best Christmas ghost stories – what is Santa’s secret? Could he really be who he says he is? – and the piece throws in just enough uncertainty to keep the tension mounting to a satisfying denouement.
Directed by Douglas and featuring the whole ensemble, Jamie Morren’s Marbles is an action-packed, though bittersweet, finale. Anything that features a Die Hard sequence in it is always going to be a crowd-pleaser (at least to the particular crowd that is me), but the piece occasionally feels cluttered and the ending a little pat, though there are some genuinely touching moments.
Anna Robinson’s versatile design does admirable duty throughout, the set cleverly changed by opening cupboard doors, like a giant advent calendar, and the transitions between the segments are smoothly done, so the changes never jar. Although not flawless, this is such a big-hearted show it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings. Family may be the theme, but so is kindness, inclusivity and forgiveness – the season’s possibility of second chances, with even the most unlikely redeemed, and salvation found in the oddest places, from childhood toys to injured pigeons.