If the thought of “Peace, Love and Goodwill to All” fills you with horror, you just might need a trip to Balham’s Theatre N16 where Simon Stephens’ play, Christmas, puts a brutally honest, deliciously cynical twist on the holiday season.
Set in a bleak East End pub where Frank Sinatra looks down from the wall and landlord Michael (Brendan Weakliam) is up to his eyes in debt, the first punter to arrive is casual labourer Billy (Jack Bence). Billy still lives with his mum and although he thinks f**king is an adjective, his limited vocabulary still has a sardonic wit – “I couldn’t, Michael, help but notice the striking economy of your Christmas decorations”. It’s not just the decorations that are sparse – so are the customers.
Dialogue is broad East End, punctuated by expletives, but we soon see past Billy’s foul mouth and cockney swagger. His mother has started smoking cannabis at 52 for her arthritis and the Shoreditch streets he knows are changing before his eyes – “you’ve never seen so many c**ting sandwich shops. How many sandwich shops do these people need?” – he has a point.
Billy is an endangered species in London and his bitter despondency chimes loudly with anyone trying to afford to live here as London is bought up by rich city workers and foreign investors. Jack Bence’s natural gift for comedy imbues even Billy’s bleakest moments with mirth – it hasn’t been an easy life, reaching a new low with his mother’s revelation that the father he never knew burned to death in a bungled insurance job.
It’s difficult not to draw parallels to Only Fools and Horses because of the play’s London setting, and there are memorable comic cameos from Tom Telford as Fat Man/Eccentric Man/Lost Dog Man. But there’s far more pathos from the show’s main players, each heralded by a waft of big band.
Next to arrive is Italian barber Giuseppe – a man who’s lived in London long enough to remember housing estates rising from the ashes of a city scarred by war. He, too, sees the East End he knows vanishing, with barbers replaced by fancy hairdressers all along the Roman Road.
A pub probably isn’t the best place for Giuseppe, who’s been warned he’ll die if he doesn’t stop drinking. But he’s happy here – and can’t bring himself to leave the home he shared with his wife until her death nearly three years earlier. Italian tradition states that to leave the marital home would be to betray his wife’s memory – so instead he comes here, to a pub with three customers on a Saturday night, to stem his loneliness.
The final character to arrive is cello-carrying postman Charlie (Christopher Sherwood) – a stranger on a solitary pub crawl. Unmistakably the antagonist of the piece, Charlie creates conflict for each of the other characters by forcing them each to face up to uncomfortable truths. There’s something ethereal about Charlie, and the play takes on an existentialist edge as he challenges each in turn to defend their actions, including landlord Michael’s forced estrangement from his son because of a violent past.
Simon Stephens characters are plausible enough to ensure the play never lurches into philosophical wallowing and Sarah Chapleo’s adept direction remains firmly rooted in gritty East End realism. Snappy one-liners flow like whisky. “Billy, what did you get me for Christmas you c**t?” may not be Tennessee Williams, but Jack Bence’s portrayal of the Landlord’s six-year old son is priceless.
Postman Charlie references himself as a guardian angel, but Christoper Sherwood’s performance oozes realism and his social observations are spot on. “They say that poverty binds a community – I think it destroys people.” His 20 quid bet on Blind Willy at odds of 18/1 provides plenty of cash for drinking so if he’s an angel, then he’s somewhat fallen.
At the play’s most esoteric it echoes Camus’ Huis Clos, and the pub feels as close to Limbo as Limehouse. Frequent visits to the pub loos give the performers a much needed break and allow nuanced shifts in dynamic. The play’s claustrophobic setting holds a magnifying glass to the human condition; Michael’s debt and remorse in losing his son, Giuseppe’s grief at the loss of both his wife and business, Billy’s suffocating life living with his mum.
Of all the play’s characters, Billy is by far the most likeable, wondering what his dad would’ve thought about how his life turned out. It’s only at the very end of the play that Michael can bring himself to open up to Billy about the enormity of his problems, before eventually, even Billy has to leave. In the end, Michael is left to face his demons alone with just a bottle of Poteen for company.
It seemed fitting that Ol’ Blue Eyes himself had the final word as, looking down from his picture on the wall, we hear the strains of “That’s Life” wafting out of the jukebox. So is Christmas a cracker? Well, almost. One of the difficulties in casting on the Fringe is finding actors who accurately reflect the ages of the characters. The story does require a stretch of the imagination as a result, but that’s a minor niggle. Christmas is a fine piece of writing, acting and directing, but ultimately, it’s Jack Bence as Billy who steals the show.
Theatre N16, Balham
The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, London SW12 9HD
Until 22 December
Book Tickets for CHRISTMAS online or call Tel 07969138899
Running time 90 minutes no interval
Contains very strong language throughout