Craig Hepworth & Stuart Reeve
Vertigo Theatre Productions
King's Arms Salford
This may be Vertigo’s seasonal offering but it’s no light and fluffy madcap farce for the holidays. While it is set at Christmas time it’s a festival which the Harrison family and their in-laws will never ever forget.
I want to call this a dramedy but it’s far, far darker than that would imply. There is more drama than laughs. At its heart are long-buried corrosive secrets which erupt one Christmas. As it opens, Bill and Abby are expecting their children Samantha and Danny to arrive for the celebration unusually being held in the house of Bill’s late parents. They are troubled but we don’t know why.
This is a theme recurring quite a lot in the first half leading to the revelation of one of the big secrets which I will not spoil by letting on. Samantha, known as Sam, is pregnant and dominates her nerdish husband Gregory with amusing cruelty. She has a craving for squirty cream which punctuates some funny moments. Danny is a hot-head who has discovered his sexuality and arrives with his boyfriend Callum. This is itself a surprise to all and ramps up the tensions already brimming over.
The various confrontations between the siblings, their partners and their parents in differing configurations are contrasted with an ongoing sequence of an extended 'phone call between Bill and his estranged brother Jonathan. It is a bit confusing at times but it makes sense after that this was all the one call just broken up for us in the course of the action of the evening.
Bill wants to reveal a family secret and Jonathan is trying to persuade him not to while refusing to attend. Bill has been protecting the family but feels it’s now time for the truth.
Callum keeps putting his foot in it with his well-meaning comments but this dysfunctional brood is such a contrast to his own which is very cold and distant. There is a lovely moment when he is soothing Samantha outside when he lets on he knows something which she’s asked Danny to keep private. This got a big laugh and showed great comic timing on the part of Ryan Clarke, a newcomer to the Vertigo family of players.
The big reveal comes just at the end of the act, although oddly then there is a very short scene of some food beginning to be served before the actual interval.
Part two continues from this point with a macabre family meal where Bill is still trying to keep the lid on things and prevent the truth from spreading out. It’s a difficult line to tread between keeping the tension because of the drama yet letting us enjoy the bizarre nature which is almost like something out of a David Lynch film. He wants them to appear to be enjoying a relaxed gathering when there is a simmering tension that boils over.
The style of the play seems to be influenced by such family crisis films like The Family Stone or Home for the Holidays where a stranger representing us witnesses the odd behaviour which reveals a family’s truths to itself. Sometimes, this element threatens to overpower the structure which is basically a family tragedy.
At last, the whole family gets to discover the secret which explains why their father is like he is and why they never knew their grandparents. It’s a bit shouty at times but given the explosive subject matter it’s hardly surprising and there are quieter moments to balance this. Along the way, Callum and Danny are shown to be strong enough to survive as a couple while Sam and Gregory find the courage to change their relationship. There is then, right at the end, a further reveal and a lovely ironic reversal leading to a very satisfying resolution which I will not reveal.
Stuart Reeve as Bill shows a man so damaged he can’t help but damage the next generation. Emma Morgan as his wife Abby is also torn between supporting his decision to keep things quiet while wanting to tell the truth and shows the cost of this. Richard Allen has an engaging fluidity on stage and very satisfyingly inhabits troubled Danny with some light and shade amid the barbs and the passion.
Nicola O’Keeffe is very convincing as the fast-talking, pregnant Sam who is unable to commit. Andy Pilkington is a good contrast as Bill’s brother Jonathan who has escaped the dysfunction only to return to confront it after all. Joe Slack clearly relishes the nerdy, geeky part of Gregory but shows there is surprising depth to his character too and, as Callum, Ryan Clarke is perhaps the most consistent player on the stage with his naturalistic characterisation.
It is an interesting play to offer us at this time but is certainly a fine ensemble piece and a welcome alternative to the saccharine fare often dished out in December and January. Vertigo is to be applauded loudly and lengthily for this. The use of the standard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is particularly ironic, but the stand-out moment for me is comedic. It is the scene where Callum leads the grace before meals and unexpectedly keeps going on and on, which the audience found very funny.
Writer-director Craig Hepworth and his co-writer Stuart Reeve keep the action flowing and the time elapses quite quickly with no drag. It deserves a longer run so perhaps it will return at some point. On the evidence of this fine and absorbing play, fringe theatre is alive and well and living in The Kings Arms.
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards