Writer: Anthony Neilson
Director: Alex Sutton
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
When we see a children’s show that is totally unsuitable for children, somehow we know that it must be Christmas. December 2018 at Southwark Playhouse is ushered in with Anthony Neilson’s 65-minute one-act play, a mix of ingredients that include a Santa’s elf, kids’ toys and glitter along with prostitution, hard drug-taking and bucketsful of ripe expletives. The result is a dizzying cocktail which poses the recurring question “who can this possibly be aimed at?” and never quite provides a satisfactory answer.
Gary (Douggie McMeekin) is separated from his wife and 5-year-old son. He runs Price Breakers, a “back of a lorry” business and, on Christmas Eve, an elf (Dan Starkey) breaks into his warehouse, explaining that he works for the International Gifts Distribution Agency, based in Hartlepool. Following examples such as Miracle on 34th Street and Elf, the story weaves Christmas mythology into real modern living, but its humour lacks consistency and its underlying messages are vague.
First on the scene to help out arrives Gary’s friend Simon (Michael Salami), whose surname is Cowell – “never watch it” is his automatic response to the inevitable comment. Next comes the sassy hooker Cherry (Unique Spencer), hoping to pick up an Action Man toy for her son, having already paid Gary for it in services rendered. As mayhem ensues, the poor elf, tied up on a chair, becomes frailer and frailer, needing a sniff of the magic dust (a very dubious white powder) that he uses to bring a feeling of Christmas joy into the lives of little children.
Many of Neilson’s jokes hit the spot, others fall on stony ground or get dragged out for too long. There are attempts to inject serious themes or to moralise over Christmas commercialism, but they often feel awkward and out of place. Nonetheless, director Alex Sutton delivers a raucous production that covers up most of the play’s shortcomings and the four actors all succeed in making their characters likeable. If this show is not exactly within the traditional spirit of Christmas, it is certainly spirited.
Runs until 29 December 2018 | Image: Darren Bell