Writer: Steven Berkoff
Director: Scott Le Crass
If you’re looking for Christmas cheer, your glass might soon become half empty upon reading the blurb of Harry’s Christmas. Holly Jolly this is not. For many the season brims with jubilance and joy. It is a time for family and friends, indulgence and gift-giving. For others, it is a dreaded day in the calendar. An occasion to retreat from rather than run towards.
Steven Berkoff’s antithesis to It’s a Wonderful Life was first staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse back in 1985. It was initially commissioned for television but deemed too dark and never saw the light of day. With the subject of suicide explored alongside depression and isolation, it’s not hard to see why. Now playing at the King’s Head Theatre 37 years after its premiere, how relevant does it remain? The answer is, worryingly so.
Harry (Stephen Smith) is already on stage as the audience shuffles in. He is decorating his miniature artificial Christmas tree – a can of cider by his side. He doesn’t exactly look to be in the festive spirit. As the play itself opens, Harry raises his can to audience members. This interaction continues, enabling for a good pace while increasingly emphasising our protagonist’s isolation.
A great deal of time is devoted to the six Christmas cards that proudly hang on a string. But Harry is not proud of the fact he has so few. The highlight of his days involves waiting for the postman. He received more cards last year and even more the year before that. Perhaps he should make an increased effort to send his own out – but he only does so when someone else initiates. Maybe this is the problem?
As a voiceover conveys his inner thoughts, Harry grows increasingly angst-ridden about his lack of social contact. This comes primarily in the form of his aging mother who falls asleep in front of the TV whenever he goes round. Something he might as well do himself in his own home.
The tragedy here is that Harry yearns for friendships and relationships and craves simple human connection. However, he has become so deeply entrenched in his own loneliness that it is now simply routine. With only four walls surrounding him, Harry’s thoughts linger and consume. Wrestling with his inner conflict leaves him experiencing a multitude of emotions. We see glimmers of the friendly, perhaps even happy-go-lucky bloke he once was or could have been. But we also see a confused, lost and trapped individual who sees no way out of the circumstances of his own making.
There are several humorous moments to counteract the dark subject matter. Harry hangs up cards from last year to make up the numbers, should anyone show up to the soiree he fantasises about hosting. He is gleeful to finally receive another Christmas card – only to discover it is in fact from his insurance company reminding him to renew his subscription.
An awkward phone call with a former colleague is painful to witness. Smith perfectly captures the nerves and apprehension as he awaits an answer, followed by the uncomfortable realisation he doesn’t know what to say. His loneliness oozes out as it becomes clear the person on the end of the line only vaguely knows him, but comic relief is delivered when he’s fobbed off to speak to their young child.
Smith does well with the material, successfully balancing light and shade. His facial expressions and body language depict a great deal and his use of voice seamlessly shifts from self-deprecating to amusingly observational to exclaiming expletives without missing a beat.
It’s a heart-wrenching performance; however much of what is said soon becomes repetitive. The more Harry complains about how lonely he is, the more we want to shake him out of it. Perhaps that is the point. Berkoff’s use of repetition, common in most of his work, only reiterates the monotony of Harry’s existence and the constant current of unrelenting thoughts that flood his head. We know where he is heading and watching his journey to arrive there is all the more upsetting for it.
It’s a long hour or so and a play of this nature is certainly not for everyone – especially at this time of year. Almost four decades later, though, suicide is only rising in cases. The pandemic has exacerbated loneliness and the current cost of living crisis has us all on a pendulum, swinging between succumbing to the festive spirit expected of us and the reality of austerity.
Thanks to the commercial powers that be, we are all told how we should feel at this time of year. Harry’s Christmas provides a voice for those who feel even more muted during the festive period. A hard watch but an important one.
Runs until 24 December 2022