Recent years have produced countless claims to the “alternative” Christmas show, promising respite from glitter, jingle bells and cries of “he’s behind you”. Soho Theatre’s offbeat contribution is one of the few to really deliver on this promise. Sure, all the hallmarks of the festive season are here, but this is no cosy, tinsel-decked affirmation of the sentiments we hear spouted from all directions at this time of year. Anthony Neilson and Steve Marmion’s show, while pumping out the laughs at a breathless rate, also recognises that – whisper it – Christmas can sometimes be a bit shit.
This is a bitter recognition for Gary, a one-time City boy who is now flogging knock-off toys and spending Christmas Eve alone in his warehouse. Or at least he was alone, until a man claiming to be an elf broke in, pleading innocence and begging to return to his sleigh. As Gary is joined by old mate and fellow substance abuser Simon and single-mum prostitute Cherry, the unlikely trio apply scepticism, snark and suspended disbelief to the problem of the red and green clad man tied up alongside the fake Furby Booms and dust-gathering Gary Glitter outfits.
Every last detail of this Crimbo car crash is a calculatedly crappy alternative to the festive magic promised by parents and advertisers alike. Snow is replaced by showers of polystyrene packaging; fairy dust is swapped for cocaine; instead of a red-faced, rotund Santa, we get an elf with track marks up his arms. Yet, for all the detritus of broken dreams and long lost childhoods, Neilson and Marmion still tease us into believing. Against logic and evidence, we’re desperate to tell ourselves that this dishevelled figure in his pointy hat is not a quick-thinking junkie but a bona fide resident of the North Pole.
This is thanks to the stubborn ambivalence of tone that is courted throughout, repeatedly upending an audience’s expectations. Craig Gazey’s “Elf” is a lesson in ambiguity, answering the interrogations of his captors with responses that are by turns assured, desperate and downright bonkers, yet always governed by reasoning that somehow makes a strange sort of sense. Elves don’t deliver the presents, apparently – they “enhance” them. Remember how much fun you had as a kid with all the cardboard boxes and wrapping paper on Christmas Day? That would be because the elves’ magic won’t work on synthetic materials; the plastic presents confounded them, so they enhanced the packaging instead.
Touches like this demonstrate all the surreal ingenuity of Neilson’s writing at its best, complemented by the wacky, determinedly shoddy songs he has written with composer Tom Mills. The lyrics are all clumsy festive schmaltz, the singing unapologetically atrocious. And it’s oddly brilliant, slicing right through the queasy sentimentality that reigns elsewhere. But even with the satire, we are rarely on solid ground. The myth of Christmas is dismantled, the magic of childhood abandoned, and still this production manages to inject a surprise dose of that addictive Christmas feeling.
The result of all this tonal variation, however, is a number of sharp and sometimes jolting handbrake turns. While the pace of the first third is zippy and sitcom-esque, throwing out joke after joke, cracks begin to appear when the emotional tenor shifts. Neilson turns out to be a gag-machine to rival the best panto writers, but the momentum of these early exchanges is tricky to maintain and the show visibly flags somewhere around the middle – a bit like Christmas Day itself.
Despite its flaws, though, the dark humour and brilliantly bizarre flourishes ultimately rescue the piece, just about keeping it on that tightrope between worn cynicism and childlike delight. For anyone who has ever suspected, like me, that Christmas as an adult is two parts nostalgia and one part alcohol, The Night Before Christmas nails both the joy and the disappointment that the festive season can involve.
“Let’s get our hands dirty with glitter.” Read the Exeunt interview with Steve Marmion.