It’s a strange thing to see this show so soon after the election. Mike Bartlett’s Christmas show, first performed in Oxford last year, concerns Andy, a middle-aged widower who sits in his local village hall on Christmas Eve, waiting for a possible reunion with his estranged daughter, Maya, who left home three years prior because of something which may or may not have to do with Brexit.
There’s something wonderfully downbeat about the majority of Snowflake – in large part thanks to Jeremy Herbert’s beautifully detailed village hall design – full of rubbish cream cornices, musty floral curtains, crowded cork noticeboards. I’d never been to the Kiln before this show, and for one bizarre moment when I walked into the theatre, I looked up at the set and thought, “I didn’t realise this place was a converted village hall.” It’s nostalgically dreary, tugging a reaction out of your memory’s dusty corners – memories of school nativities gone by and the like. And Andy’s decorations – a tree densely adorned in tinsel and lights, a “Welcome Back” sign spelled out with shiny primary colours, and a sweet model house, the shape of which resembles what a four-year-old draws when you ask them to draw home – are simultaneously far, far too much, and ever so slightly pathetic.
It’s an oddly clumsy play. It’s lopsided – charming, yes, but often baffling. Andy spends the first half alone, rehearsing what he might say to his daughter if/when she walks through the door and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lights incrementally tighten on his awkward frame. The monologue – beautifully but conveniently crafted to provide a load of backstory in one singular whammy – comes across as a strangely unsophisticated move from Bartlett, but it has a certain, winding appeal to it too. Andy balls his fists up into the sleeves of his Christmas jumper, reaches out with his arms up when his voice raises and then quickly closes up again. Elliot Levey (so devastating in Rebecca Frecknall’s Three Sisters, in a not dissimilar role here) is all scruffy salt and pepper hair and rumpled chinos and gives this beautiful, precisely calibrated performance – slipping from uncertainty to self-righteousness between sips of tea, bemused by identity politics but good-naturedly intrigued too, tears shining in his eyes as he delivers a horrifically bad joke, all carefully conducted by Clare Lizzimore. Then, Natalie enters – Amber James, fizzing with charisma – and the air really starts to crackle.
So yes, it’s a Brexit play, in that the narrative hinges heavily on Brexit as a device, and yes, one character is Leave and the other is Remain, (guess who!) and yes, they have a fairly long argument about why someone might be one or the other, and yes, it does all feel as clunky as I’m making it sound, but it’s also perhaps commendable that Bartlett’s gutsily gone forth and grabbed the bull by the horns, subtlety be damned. He’s a strong enough writer and the tone of the piece is genuinely charming and well-intentioned enough that he can, for the most part, get away with a play which is essentially a series of outrageous plot contrivances that would give any good dramaturg heartburn.
It’s a generous piece of writing – that second half, mainly made up of capital-C Conversations about capital-I Issues feels fairly even-handed, poking good-natured fun at both the out-of-touch Gen Xer and the overly sensitive millennial, rarely feeling like Bartlett’s coming down harder on one side than the other, even when the topic is as twisty as Christmas lights at the bottom of the box.
But then again, so much time is lavished upon Andy’s psyche in that uninterrupted, unchallenged first half monologue, even if his bubble is then thoroughly pierced by first Natalie and then Maya. Andy’s afforded more complexity – more time to state his case, almost directly to the audience. Natalie and Maya, comparatively, seem a little thin –it’s to James and Ellen Robertson’s credit, and indeed Bartlett’s as an astonishingly sharp dialogue writer, that they feel as fleshed out as they do. And then Bartlett swerves slightly into an ending which is, yes, melancholic, but ultimately hopeful – a shiny Christmas star on top of a wilting tree – and it feels almost completely unearned. It was like the tears, hot and ready at the back of my eyes, had been coaxed, unwilling, out of me.
Snowflake feels constrained by its position as a festive show – like it’s been encouraged to wrap things up neatly and send everyone out with fuzzy feelings. It feels at times a like a fanfiction version of your family’s Christmas dinner – all a little fanciful, when in actuality, arguing with your Tory aunt about the election will most likely result in wine being spilled onto the tablecloth and the turkey burning ominously in the oven. Perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps it’s to do with me – that the political climate in the country at this moment feels so hopeless, so desperately sad post-election that I cannot fathom a situation like the one in Snowflake ever happening. Snowflake is idealistic in a way that feels somewhat naïve, and more than a little frustrating – optimistically playing into an idea of a truly tolerant and kind Britain which feels so far removed from what I can see.
It’s like listening your essentially well-meaning dad talk about politics – better and more nuanced than you might expect, but still just slightly off. Then again, a 23-year-old would say that, wouldn’t she?
Snowflake is on at Kiln Theatre until 25th January 2019. More info and tickets here.