Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Theatre review: The Night Before Christmas

Not too surprisingly for the second week of December, I'm in the middle of six solid days of seasonal1 offerings, all of them with a slightly different flavour to the traditional Christmas fare. Soho's take is a revisiting of Anthony Neilson's play The Night Before Christmas, which he's rewritten as a musical with lyrics by himself and director Steve Marmion, and music by Tom Mills. There's certainly a creature or two stirring in Neilson's very adult version of the story, set in a warehouse owned by Gary (Navin Chowdhry,) a former city trader and now dealer in counterfeit goods. The toys and gadgets may be fake but he doesn't fancy having them stolen regardless, so when he catches an intruder in an elf costume he ties him up and calls his friend Simon (Craig Kelly.) By the time Simon's arrived though, Gary is convinced the man isn't a burglar at all, but an actual Elf (Craig Gazey,) who claims to have fallen off the sleigh, and needs to be returned before midnight or he'll die.

Neilson's a writer whose work I really enjoy, but who is hard to predict. The Night Before Christmas is a potty-mouthed, bizarre comedy that plays on the long-standing relationship of the two men, piling on the jokes over the underlying theme of men in their thirties regretting the roads they didn't travel.

The cast is completed by Rebecca Atkinson as Cherry, a prostitute owed money by Gary, who gets drawn into the surreal argument over whether the Elf is really an elf, resulting in the three of them being offered the granting of one wish each in return for setting him free. Although all the performers have their moments, Gazey is the show-stealer despite spending most of the show tied to a chair, as the somewhat camp, drawling Elf with a line in increasingly bonkers tales of North Pole life, and the magical powder that gives children Christmas Spirit when it goes up their noses.

Gazey also benefits from not having much to do with the musical element. I haven't seen Neilson's original version of The Night Before Christmas but found myself wishing Marmion had simply revived that rather than trying to add the new angle. The songs don't really work, in fact most of the time they never really get going beyond a few bars. Marmion's production has a borderline-panto feel which made Laurie comment he half-expected the cast to address the audience directly at any moment, and the songs are probably meant to be part of that, but all they really accomplish is to break the flow, and make Chowdhry and Kelly look incredibly uncomfortable trying to perform them.

So definitely a mixed bag of a show, which at its worst feels incredibly awkward. Fortunately it's at its best more frequently, and if it's impossible to predict what genre Neilson will write in next there are certain trademarks that keep cropping up: Here it's his talent for a particularly surreal brand of smutty joke, which shows up increasingly as the show goes on and provides a couple of real highlights. I also enjoyed the way the story structure follows the traditional seasonal stalwart of a possibly-magical outsider helping people find something inside them that improves their miserable lives, even as it subverts it. It's just too bad about that pesky music.

The Night Before Christmas by Anthony Neilson, Steve Marmion and Tom Mills is booking until the 5th of January at Soho Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

1Let The Right One In isn't strictly Christmassy but there is a lot of snow in it so shush.

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