Live Theatre in Newcastle likens its latest set of short online plays to a festive selection box which will probably feature quite heavily in many homes this Christmas. While there is some seasonal joy and humour to be found in the contents of 5 Plays Of Christmas there are underlying themes about the reality of life as it is lived today which takes it away from the realms of tinsel, groaning feasts and light entertainment on the tele.
The school Nativity is a Christmas rite of passage and for many people will be the first (and possibly only ever) role which they play on stage. In The End Of Term Show, Olu Alakija has his protagonist Maxwell Martins (Brian Lonsdale) recall a disastrous debut aged just 7 when he nearly reversed history and changed the course of organised religion. It’s a moment that has stayed with him into adulthood as we discover in the closing moments of the play which presents us with a nice twist. It’s quite similar in tone to an incident recounted in Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine but Alakija and Lonsdale manage to put a new spin on it, reminding us just what a traumatic moment standing up in front of a group of people can be. It’s a good opener and draws you in sufficiently to want to progress to the other pieces.
Ellen McNally’s Those Yet To Come is an ingenious twist on an old favourite as Bill and Dave (the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Yet To Come) are about to set out on their traditional Christmas Eve round. Unfortunately, Dazza (Ghost of Christmas Present) has gone AWOL, and Dave is suffering from depression, mainly because it’s 2020 and he can’t see much of a future for anyone. However, an encounter with a modern day descendant of a well-known literary character who has just been made unemployed helps to alter his perspective. It’s a neat premise well played and adeptly paced by the trio of actors – David Raynor, Eilish Stout-Cairns and William Wyn Davies – and has plenty of good jokes (as well as a few of the “Dad” variety). It’s all tied together with some well-placed messages about enduring under trying circumstances.
I must admit that, not being from the area, when I saw the title of the next piece, Skeletons In Cullercoats, I assumed this referred to an item of clothing; turns out it’s a stop on the Newcastle Metro. This makes absolute sense for that is the setting of this play by Benjamin Storey in which Jessica Johnson and James Gladdon play a couple of passengers who have just had a falling out. Their relationship to each other and the source of their disagreement are not immediately apparent, neither is it obvious why Danny is dressed as a Christmas Elf. Storey’s well-paced script reveals the facts of the matter gradually, including why Joe is in trouble with the police and the loss that both of them are feeling at this time of year. This tightly written and neatly played piece demonstrates why family is important.
The Whale Washed Up On Christmas Eve by Sarah Tarbit takes a real event as inspiration, or rather several real events, for mass strandings of cetaceans on our northern shores are not as rare as one might expect. Frank, a Caliban like figure, retells and indeed relives the events surrounding the tragedy and makes it clear that many of the gawping onlookers acted with an animalistic savagery while claiming souvenirs. Unfortunately, Frank reacts with similar savagery in dealing with the problem and has become something of an outcast living a solitary feral existence. We learn that he witnessed regular acts of cruelty on the part of his father towards his mother and has been dealing with the mental scars ever since. Chris Connel gives a fierce and unsettling performance of a man on the edge.
The final play took me pretty much full circle because I felt it also had shades of Shirley Valentine about it. In My Door, ever optimistic Agnes addresses remarks to her front door just as Shirley does the kitchen wall. Furthermore, she also makes remarks to her phone, the TV, the sofa and her Christmas Tree; sometimes she imagines their replies in character. For Agnes is a lonely soul who has to conjure up images of Christmases from the past in order to keep herself smiling; she does so uncomplainingly and prefers to count her blessings. Given the events of last December – and to some extent this, it’s a pertinent reminder to those of us who are lucky enough to be with our families that not everyone is as fortunate. Mandi Chivasa’s monologue is performed with great skill by Cleo Sylvestre .
The themes of the five plays – childhood trauma, redundancy, family loss, the savage nature of humankind and loneliness don’t particularly reek of festive cheer. Indeed, they are a stark reminder of why so many people find this season a difficult one. If you’re not relishing the TV schedules over the next few days (have you seen what’s on?) then this punchy virtual theatre boxset might be just what you’re looking for.
5 Plays Of Christmas is available via Live Theatre’s website – click here . There is a further selection of their short plays gathered under the title 10 Minutes To…..Call Home also available – click here
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