21 Round for Christmas – Hope Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Matt Ballantyne and Toby Hampton

Director: Toby Hampton

Christmas can be a bittersweet time especially when all the excitement turns into frantic hours of cooking, family rows and wishing you were anywhere else. For Tracy, in Matt Ballantyne and Toby Hampton’s 21 Round for Christmas opening at the Hope Theatre, it’s mostly just bitter in a 65-minute monologue about memory, friendship and long-held regrets.

Tracy is trapped in the kitchen cooking Christmas dinner while her extended family play games, eat Doritos and ignore her from the other room. Recalling happier times with her best friend Jackie, Tracy thinks about the fun they used to have and where it’s got them, all the while keeping an eye on the cooking including Carol’s vital vegan tart.

Expanding on a filmed extract released during lockdown, Ballantyne and Hampton’s comic piece is a lot of fun as the cheeky Tracy instantly connects with the audience who, like Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, is alone in a room “talking to the walls”. In fact, Tracy directly addresses and acknowledges what is very much her audience, with some amusing moments of interaction with unsuspecting men in the front row who double as some of her fellow characters.

In creating a sense of confederacy, Tracy is open, sometimes brash and gossipy, dramatically recreating some of the key events of her life including a clunky séance that she finds so silly that she behaves very badly for the fun of it, a series of seductions in posh bars where she divides men into cowards and a far ruder word beginning with ’c’, and a grand romance with an American named Gregory. These reconstructions balance nicely with the narrative parts of the show in which Tracy focuses her savage wit on the family we hear through the walls.

Yet, while there is considerable focus on the non-festive past and the enduring friendship between Tracy and Jackie, 21 Round for Christmas doesn’t spend quite enough time in the present explaining why the once fearsome Tracy is now mutedly preparing dinner for her ungrateful family, the nature of those relationships and even her status in the household. There is something very solitary, perhaps lonely, in Tracy’s situation, absented from the party next door. It is a dynamic that Ballantyne and Hampton could further explore to understand why this fun, engaging woman is essentially in exile – is it by choice or is there a deeper level to her current living situation?

Clare Bloomer is fantastic as Tracy and within minutes wins the audience over, drawing them into the story with a conversational delivery that feels fresh and unrehearsed. It’s not easy to sustain the comic energy across the show but Bloomer is equally adept at the hilarious re-enactment of past scenes as maintaining focus in the narrative sections, eventually introducing a tinge of sadness for a life not lived that a future iteration could also expand on.

The inevitable shadows that fall across the comedy story are well managed and could even be bigger, but between Ballantyne, Hampton and Bloomer they make this character feel very real, a creation who exists beyond the time we see her. And while her terrible family may sound like they are having a good time, we’re much better off in the kitchen with Tracy.

Runs until 18 December 2021

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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