The Night Before Christmas
Reviewed – 30th November 2018
“This not-at-all-family-friendly Christmas tale is wickedly clever, and doesn’t fail to draw laughs”
It’s Christmas Eve, and Simon (Michael Salami) is less than thrilled to be called out of bed in the middle of the night. His friend, Gary (Douggie McMeekin), has caught an Elf (Dan Starkey) breaking into his warehouse. Or at least a man dressed like an elf. Elf claims he fell from Santa’s sleigh. Gullible Gary is inclined to believe him. Cynical Simon tells Gary to call the police. Elf begs to be let go, plying them with detailed information about Santa, including the Powdered Christmas Feeling (PCF) he gives to children (great high, no side effects).
Gary and Simon are still deliberating what to do when sex-worker Cherry (Unique Spencer) arrives, demanding the Power Rangers for her son Gary promised her in exchange for sex. Elf says he needs to get back to Santa’s sleigh, but when Cherry checks his arms, she finds track marks. Obviously a junkie. Elf protests, it’s just PFC! He’ll grant each of them one wish if they’ll just let him go…
This not-at-all-family-friendly Christmas tale is wickedly clever, and doesn’t fail to draw laughs. It’s also touching – surprisingly Christmas-spirited – as even the most jaded adults manage to rediscover the Christmas feeling.
Director Alex Sutton’s revival of Anthony Neilson’s play, which premiered in London in 1995, is as sweary and gritty (real cigarettes smoked on stage) as its “in-yer-face” author intended. Unfortunately though, the story has just got started when it’s dragged to a near-standstill by overly-lengthy expositional dialogue. Gary and Simon spend too long questioning Elf and not believing him. Their extended Q&A interrogates the rules of Santa’s operation to an unnecessary extent, and while Elf’s explanation is unique, it’s pure exposition. The performance feels stalled with Simon constantly threatening to call the police, and neither of them making a decision. When Cherry finally arrives on the scene, it’s like being yanked out of the mud. The pace falters again later with the characters’ circular debate over which wishes to choose. When a play has a 65-minute runtime, it’s not good for scenes to feel long.
McMeekin, Salami, and Spencer give high-energy, confident performances with skilled comedic timing. Starkey’s decision to play the elf straightforward – distressed and desperate – forgoes some of the potential comedy in the role. Designer Michael Leopold has made effective use of a sparse set, and delights the audience with some well-timed ‘Christmas magic.’
Considering Soho Theatre’s 2013 revival of The Night Before Christmas was a musical, there’s a question of whether this 2018 revival has anything to add to the original. The script provides an excellent premise, but it feels as though Sutton has missed an opportunity to address its flaws, and contribute a fresh perspective.
The Night Before Christmas is fun, silly, ‘alternative’ Christmas theatre, but this revival doesn’t lift the play above the original’s pitfalls.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Darren Bell
The Night Before Christmas
Southwark Playhouse until 29th December
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: