Simon Stephens’ Christmas isn’t very Christmassy at all. But then Christmas isn’t always a happy time. When people are forced to be cheerful in each other’s company, hidden conflicts can erupt and explode (often after too much booze) and even when we do get along, we usually just end up watching television together, bored, dyspeptic, longing for New Year’s Eve.
I’m not a big fan it has to be said. But I did enjoy Stephens’ irreverent take on the season. It contains moments that are undeniably magical as well as moments where violence almost erupts, only to be reigned in. Christmas is a lesson in brinkmanship, the characters always on the verge of snapping.
First performed in 2004, Stephens’ gritty script is full of c- words that aren’t ‘Christmas’, and its humour is earthy and dirty. It’s set in a pub, where the landlord, played by William Ely, isn’t allowed to see his son, and the upkeep of the business is financially crippling him. Billy, a young construction site worker, lives with his ailing mother; his father was never around, and has recently passed away. An older gentleman, an Italian barber called Seppo, has also suffered a loss, his wife three years ago, and is still in mourning.
The characters’ conversations expose their fragilities gradually; for the most part they bicker, tell jokes, and only reveal their problems in passing. Then a stranger arrives and things begin to unravel. James Groom’s interloper is fascinating. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance in the Fargo TV show comes to mind: grey, gaunt, intense. He’s alternately back-slappingly energetic and darkly mysterious, offering rounds of drinks one minute and asking awkward questions the next. He manipulates each of the characters into talking about their problems, his friendliness making them drop their guard for just long enough to reveal something. As they realise what he’s doing, they become hostile to point where violence feels inevitable.
There is fantastic energy on display and in the small, intimate theatre at the White Bear, it sucks you in. Joana Dias’s design amplifies this uncomfortable proximity: the audience walks from one pub seemingly into another, with a full-sized bar and beer taps that really work, a sad Christmas tree in the corner.
This last detail is significant. Setting the play at Christmas time is necessary to the quality of the drama. Human tragedy is amplified at times set aside for celebration, and the emphasis on family and friendship makes hidden loneliness more acute. Stephens’ characters all need someone to talk to, but they resent this impulse. It’s easier to sit in the pub, drinking and pretending that everything is OK.