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The Night Before Christmas – Soho Theatre, London

Writer and co-lyricist: Anthony Neilson

Composer: Tom Mills

Director and co-lyricist: Steve Marmion

Reviewer: Ian Foster

[rating:4]

Craig Kelly, Craig Gazey and Navin Chowdhry - Photography Sheila Burnett (2)Given there are two other shows with the same title but aimed at the family market, it would be advisable to check in advance that Anthony Neilson’s The Night Before Christmas is the one you intend to see. For blessed with adult content warnings and a sense of humour as dark as black ice, it’s not one for the kids. Christmas Eve sees an intruder in Gary’s warehouse and he calls ex-con mate Simon for help but as he arrives, he’s managed to apprehend them. Thing is, he dressed as an elf and claims to have fallen from the sky, so naturally they decide to interrogate him.

Neilson’s comedy really is as black as they come, with topical jokes and references abounding (though one wonders if the Mandela one is still present, written as it was before his death…) and the premise allows for a daftness which is hugely appealing. When they find trackmarks on his arms, Simon sees this as confirmation that he’s a junkie on the make yet Gary believes the elf’s story of a tragic addiction to fairydust – it’s silly but charming and so the choice to adapt it into a musical doesn’t come from too far left-field.

Though to call it a musical feels like something of a misnomer – there are words and some of them are set to music, but the score isn’t particularly tunetastic and the performers are hardly going to rate much above wannabe on Singstar. But the overall effect is something really rather clever as it feels like what would actually happen if real life turned into a musical, utterly resplendent in its mundane regularity, the same old banter rehashed, the reactions to an extraordinary situation refreshingly normal, with little moments of shining clarity and precious emotion peeking through.

And even the most out-of-the-ordinary character – Craig Gazey’s Elf – fulfils the same brief, his down-to-earth demeanour frankly hilarious as he rebuts the ever-incredulous questioning with the most banal responses to the questions we’d all love to ask anyone who rides in Santa’s sleigh. But though Neilson enjoys puncturing so much festive frivolity, he’s also canny enough to allow for the child-like wonder of Christmas to creep in – whether through having three actual wishes granted, or the recognition of just what this time of year can bring to so many.

As single mother and prostitute Cherry, Rebecca Atkinson encapsulates this perfectly – the necessary spikiness of her persona covering a deep emotion which is unveiled in a surprisingly moving dance number. Navin Chowdhury’s Gary, desperate to believe in something, is a compelling lead and brilliant foil to Craig Kelly’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Simon whose world-weary scepticism sits at the opposite end of the scale to the magic of Christmas. Yet somehow, Neilson, Mills and the cast find a nigh-on perfect balance of hilarity, profanity and magic.

Photo: Sheila Burnett

Runs until 5th January

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