Dan Starkey, Douggie McMeekin and Unique Spencer. Photo: Darren Bell
Anthony Neilson’s 60-minute one-act play, first staged at The Read Room in 1995 is a clever idea for a seasonal play and it sits quite happily in the Southwark Playhouse configured in the round. It asks, in a light-hearted way, some quite significant questions about what Christmas is, why we feel about it as we do and about the complexity and messiness of relationships.
Gary (Douggie McMeekin) is running a mildly dodgy warehouse business when, on Christmas Eve, he catches what he takes to be a burglar (Dan Starkey). The intruder claims he’s a Christmas Elf and is certainly dressed as one. Incredulity, some of it quite funny, follows especially from Gary’s friend Simon (Michael Salami) and later from the prostitute Cherry, (Unique Spencer) clearly a regular caller. None of them believes a word of it really but, in their different ways, they are all unhappy people who’d really like some joy in their lives and, eventually, in a sense find it.
There’s some intelligent acting especially between McMeekin and Salami who spark well off each other and are visible listeners. Starkey’s Elf is a much more middle class type and the contrast adds a bit of dramatic friction. Spencer’s character is very angry and has plenty of presence although her accent is unconvincing.
On the whole, though, the pacing of the piece is a bit samey. There’s an awful lot of loud expletive-laden shouting and “attitude” which isn’t balanced by enough reflective discussion Yes, it’s naturalistic dialogue, but no one talks like this at such length because it would be so exhausting. It’s certainly wearing to listen to. When characters stop to think and desist from shouting and start thinking we see real sensitive vulnerability and the production needs a bit more of that.
Douggie McMeekin and Dan Starkey star in The Night Before Christmas at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Darren Bell