Panto was my first experience of the theatre so I have a lot of love for productions at this time of year. They remind me of simpler days when heckling was actively encouraged and you could get away with hoying pick and mix at the back of each other’s heads during an interval. But Santa Must Die! is a change from the family-friendly seasonal offerings. Christmas is magical unless you’re working in retail, hospitality or social care. Then it’s pretty grim. This lively show, written by Roise MacPherson and made in conversation with people on zero hour contracts, takes a look at the reality of the gig economy.
Santa Must Die! is an easy sell for someone who used to work screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life at an indie cinema on Christmas Eve. Nothing says ‘Merry Christmas!’ like serving mince pies and mulled wine to a queue of agitated cinema-goers at breakneck speed. Sometimes it was alright. But mostly it was awful and afterwards we’d retreat to the staff room after the onslaught: dazed, broken and hoping there’d be booze leftover at the end. Every Christmas some good citizen tweets a variation of: remember be nice to customer service staff!?!!! But I’m yet to see a piece of theatre set over the holiday that advocates for workers’ rights — until now.
Santa Must Die! follows Nadia (Rhian Liu) and Abed (Robin Ravi), twenty-somethings who form a punk band with composer (and reluctant stage presence) Sean Ryan. Overworked and tired, their music is informed by their experiences. Between them they belt out imperfect bops denouncing capitalism. Their lyrics (written by co-director Laurence Young) explore the injustice of a system that refuses to pay a fair wage and treats its casual workers with contempt. The narrative is framed within a Christmas Eve gig at their local pub. Both Liu and Ravi are confident performers and their charisma is key to getting the audience on side in a fragmented but rousing 90 minutes.
Anna Robinson’s set and costume design serve the party atmosphere well. The customised t-shirts, pulled hastily over work attire, are a thoughtful touch. In their band uniform, Nadia and Abed belt out tunes against the shimmering background of a foil curtain. There’s enough room on the back wall to project the lyrics of each song. This device comes into the fore when, reminiscent of a karaoke at an office Christmas party, we’re invited to sing-along. It’s kitsch, a bit silly and just the right amount of audience participation.
At times, the music needed to take a backseat to centre Nadia and Abed’s relationship. Poignant emotional beats get lost in the noise. However, on balance, the messiness of the format is a reflection of the play’s punk sensibilities. Had Santa Must Die! been anywhere else but Alphabetti, it might’ve lost credibility. Alphabetti is a fringe venue with a DIY ethos. Their pay-what-you-feel policy means that shows like this one can reach a wider audience because ticket prices aren’t prohibitive. They pride themselves on being welcoming to all. More than ever, and particularly at this difficult moment for the industry, I’m reminded of how lucky we are to have them.
If you’re looking for a slice of anarchic, festive fun then look no further than Santa Must Die! Take your mates, buy some beers, rise up against the corporate machine. And even if you don’t cause the revolution, you’ll definitely have fun along the way.
Santa Must Die! plays at Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle until 31st December. More info here.