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The Long Christmas Dinner – Peacock Stage, The Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

Reviewer: Marian Lovett

Writer: Thornton Wilder

Director: Raymond Keane and Sarah Jane Scaife

‘Make the most of every moment. Life’s short span will soon be over….’

At the beginning of this pitch perfect play we catch the faint strain of a song by American composer Sam Jones, arranged here by Aoife Kavanagh.  One line sets the tone: ‘Make the most of every moment….’ the singer croons as Lucia calls her new husband and mother in law to the Christmas table.

Directors Raymond Keane and Sarah Jane Scaife present  an Abbey Theatre Production of The Long Christmas Dinner as The Peacock stage’s seasonal offering.  In real time, its duration is short, just fifty minutes and yet the effect of this piece resonates for some time after the actors have left the stage.

Written in 1931 by Thornton Wilder (best known perhaps for Old Town) the one act play is set somewhere in Middle America. Its focus is the Bayard Family and their annual genteel Christmas gathering where the gentlemen toast the ladies health and ‘white meat’ is usually preferred; but its real subject is time passing and the rituals, repetitions and regrets that characterise family life over four generations.

Time expands via references to times past and ahead and contracts through the endless repetitions and barely altered anecdotes. Visually, a sense of timelessness is communicated by the elegant stage set (inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper and designed by Sally Withnell) and gorgeous costumes (the work of  Sinead Cuthbert), all assisting to create the impression of something classic and immutable. Creative lighting, skilled shifts in how the characters move and speak as well as music and mime collectively cue the transitions from one Christmas to the next. Wilder’s theatrical miracle is to sketch the swift passage of time and its sheer elasticity so that in no time at all the characters appear to age before our eyes. The whirlwind pace inevitably presents a serious challenge for any actor, one which is met skilfully and smoothly by the cast.

In the first three minutes Lucia I, played by Valerie O Connor, is radiant as Roderic I’s new wife. Yet somehow she appears care worn fifteen minutes in and, about ten minute later, has departed this world. Her daughter’s regret hits home with anyone who has suffered bereavement: ‘I never told her how wonderful she was…’.

Naturally it is ‘the young people’ who rail against the confines of home and parental expectations. Roderic Junior, played with spirit by Liam Bixby, storms off after a family row, threatening to go ‘somewhere that times passes’. Minutes and years later his mother Leonora remarks, so wistfully she might draw tears from at least some parts of the theatre, ‘How slowly time passes when there are no young people in the house’.

Leonora, played beautifully by Rachel O’ Byrne, is luminous when she steps onto the stage as Charles’ wife, then later fades as she is stricken by grief with the loss of a baby and later the loss of a grown up son: ‘How casually we let him go’. Given the swift pace at which the play proceeds, it’s remarkable that Wilder achieves an amount of character development, sometimes via a seemingly gradual revelation of certain habits or traits which, as in life, become more accentuated as time moves on.

If the Bayard’s story is one of ritual and repetition, there is also love and joy, grief and loss played and replayed. In short the stuff of life. While the play might initially seem sugar coated there is an evident subtext. This can be read from some phrases that echo as a constant, such as Old Mother Bayard remembering when there were ‘Cherokee on this very land’, something her grandchildren recall and repeat years later. Wilder more than hints at how ‘this fine land’ on which the grand American dream is built once belonged to the Cherokees. Romanticised memories colour the reality that the land was brutally colonised, developed and exploited to the extent that even those who are expected to join ‘the firm’ and carry on the pattern, such as Roderic junior, eventually recoil and leave the fold.

As snow and frost were ‘general all over Dublin’ when the play opened, the refrain of ‘every least twig is encircled with ice…. you almost never see that’ seemed especially apt. Winter and Christmas come around again and again. Life’s cycles continues. If memories fade perhaps the hope is that they are written down, somewhere, maybe ‘in a book upstairs’.

In The Long Christmas Dinner the ensemble have wrought something beautiful from Wilder’s words and intent. Before this year ends, if you take time from your hectic schedule to see just one Christmas show, let this be the one.

Runs until December 31st 2022.

The Review's Hub Score

Poignant, poetic, memorable

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. 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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