Monday, 14 December 2015

Theatre review: Pine

If Pine was 20 minutes shorter, it would be a pretty much perfect show. While Hampstead Theatre's main house doesn't tend to do a Christmas production, the Downstairs studio has made its own tradition of programming a twisted version of a festive special. We've had disastrous office parties and dysfunctional family reunions, and this year Jacqui Honess-Martin's play takes us to a large lot selling Christmas trees - not a cheap outfit on a street corner but part of a chain selling quality trees for up to £150 apiece (Polly Sullivan's design makes the audience rows of trees on sale, into which the characters can disappear to work or get off with each other.) The temporary workers there must be well-paid too, as they tend to return year after year. A graduate and aspiring journalist, Gabby (Hannah Britland) is there for the fourth year running as her career goals haven't worked out. She'll be joining her boyfriend in Germany in the New Year but for her last December at Festive Pines her boss Sami (David Mumeni) has chosen to make her manager of this particular outlet.

Also returning is Sami's cousin Taj (Ronak Patani,) an academic trying for a PhD in medical research, whom Sami prefers to describe as autistic rather than explain how he's simply very socially awkward.


New for this year are Joe (Matt Whitchurch,) an injured professional rugby player who needs the cash until he's well enough to play again; and spoilt student Betty (Lucy May Barker,) a princess type whose banker father's told her she needs some kind of work experience before he gives her a cushy job with him. Despite her obvious disgust at actually having to do something, Betty turns out to be a natural saleswoman, quickly showing up Gabby, whose impatience to move on to the kind of job she feels she deserves has started showing itself in the way she treats customers and staff.


Opening with Britland singing a mournfully slowed-down Christmas carol, it seems like Pine might attempt to be a bleak alternative to Christmas cheer, but despite a distinct serious side, Honess-Martin's play mostly settles down as a witty comedy. Although there's plenty of funny lines and even some memorable physical humour, most of the comedy's success comes from how clearly delineated the characters feel, all of them flawed but with a depth that makes them believable, and Lisa Spirling's production is pretty much perfectly cast: From Barker's spoilt little rich girl who avoids becoming a cliché, to Whitchurch's Welsh rugby stud whose relentless optimism is a defence against the pretty dark places his personality is prone to taking him.


In some ways Pine deals with familiar themes in recent theatre, of a new generation with few prospects, but Honess-Martin finds a different spin on it, by suggesting that for those like Joe, whose communities were already being dismantled in the '80s, they never had any hopes to be dashed in the first place. Plays like this that take a broadly comic approach but slowly reveal a more serious point beneath it have a tendency to drop the comedy and become bleak as the story goes on, but Pine actually balances the two elements perfectly, even finding a genuine optimism within its characters' uncertain futures.


It almost feels churlish to point out that the play is way too long as the author uses the time to make sure all kinds of loose ends are tied up, but despite the quality not letting up, there's definitely a sense of it outstaying its welcome - the default Hampstead Downstairs start time of 7:45pm doesn't help. Running time aside though, it's hard to fault the piece: Even those melancholy Christmas carols end up adding a lot to the evening's atmosphere, and culminate in Mumeni's particularly memorable version of Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You." With so many Downstairs shows now getting a Trafalgar 2 run seemingly by default, it's a shame this one's seasonal nature means it's unlikely to join them; worth catching while it's around.

Pine by Jacqui Honess-Martin is booking until the 16th of January at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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