Simon Stephens

Most Christmas shows appear in December and are geared at making their audiences feel good. It is appropriate that Simon Stephens' black comedy should appear as we fight off post-Noel depression, as it is the antidote to Christmas.

The action, if that is the word, takes place in a failing Docklands pub a week before the big day. With quick visits from four passers-by, four depressed men hold the floor and compete for who has had the worst experience.

The structure of the play suggests that whether consciously or not, Stephens has drawn from Conor McPherson's The Weir and Anon's New Testament.

The publican, Michael, played by Fred Ridgeway, may preside over an empty hostelry and is banned from seeing his son but he is determined to remain optimistic. This isn't easy when your only two regulars are Lee Ross' foul-mouthed 29 year old builder's labourer Billy, still living with his junkie mum, and Seppo (Bernard Gallagher), an Anglo-Italian barber with a dodgy accent who is still not over his wife's death three year's before.

However, once Paul Ritter's Charlie arrives, the initial trio seem like a bundle of laughs. Ritter plays this Mancunian stranger with his own dark secret with a wonderfully straight face. He is in some ways, the Christ figure that a play with this title requires, bearded and with a cello rather than a cross. His divine purpose might be to make three losers feel slightly better about their own lives.

Christmas is at times very funny and each of the four main actors does a good job. Its narrative thread can be a little hard to divine and any conclusions are ambivalent and not wholly satisfactorily realised. The play's real strength is in making four ordinary and quite unpleasant men seem truly interesting and sympathetic.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher