Can we all just take a moment to tip our hats to David Byrne’s New Diorama? It’s had a stonking 2017, not just artistically – Byrne’s own Secret Life of Humans was brilliant – but also behind the scenes. It opened an expansive suite of rehearsal rooms, it announced a new development programme aimed at mid-career theatremakers, and the companies it supports produced sterling work in Edinburgh. Few London theatres invest as impressively and intelligently in emerging artists as the New Diorama.
And, whaddyaknow, it’s only gone and given us a cracking Christmas show, too. Theatre hipsters’ favourite folk parody duo, performing a Christmas show at theatre hipsters’ favourite North London venue. Happy Christmas to you.
Thirty Christmases – subtitled “a rebellious comedy for grown-ups” – is a rebellious comedy for grown-ups. Written by Jonny Donahoe, and performed by Donahoe, Paddy Gervers (together they’re Jonny and the Baptists), and comedian Rachel Parris, it first ran in Oxford last Christmas and does that Team Viking/Every Brilliant Thing thing, selling itself as a touching true story, told by the protagonists. (It’s not true, by the way. I’m pretty sure. I’m less certain than I was two sentences ago.)
Donahoe and Parris – Jonny and Rachel – are spending Christmas together for the first time in a decade. Why so long? Because they fell out, way back when, and haven’t been able to speak to each other since. We witness that fateful moment – delightfully staged under an umbrella, with Gervers sprinkling fake snow on them from a stepladder – then roll back the years to their childhood, and press play. It’s a bittersweet whirlwind of comedy songs and eggnog.
Their various festivities are told very much through the rosiest of rose-tinted spectacles. The ghost at the Christmas feast is that of their father, a radically socialist, culturally Jewish agnostic who brought them up from the back of his car. He’s presented as a bit of a legend, an unconventional Captain Fantastic with a heart of gold. The truth, though, bleeds through the cracks: he may have been loving, but he was also violent, alcoholic, and prone to disappearing for days on end.
The ultimate message is as soft and cuddly as Father Christmas, but the show is laced with something a bit harsher, a bit sadder. Christmas, Donahoe points out, isn’t great fun for everyone. For the lonely, the homeless, those rejected by society, those with no-one to turn to, it’s a dark, depressing time of year. It’s to the show’s credit that, even among the comedy and the conciliation, one never loses sight of this fact.
They are good, though, the songs. Subversive send-ups of our capitalist Christmas that somehow manage to be wickedly witty and warm-hearted at the same time, taking aim at everything from charity Christmas singles to the Nativity story itself. And they’re performed with unabashed glee by the three-strong cast as well: Gervers on the guitar, Parris on the piano, and Donahoe on the mouth organ. They’re the tasty frosting on this delectable Christmas cake. You won’t find a festive show with a bigger heart in London.
Thirty Christmases is at the New Diorama until December 23rd. For more details, click here.