New End Theatre, Hampstead
December is on its way, and as sure as high-street decorations, Norwegian spruces and disastrous office parties, the yuletide run-up never fails to deliver a rash of grumpy shows depicting how miserable a time the festive season really is.
Happy Christmas, a new comedy by Paul Birtill, is no exception. It's unlikely however that this farce of distinctly sub-Ayckbourn standards will ever join the Christmas canon. It's a play so predictably unoriginal that it's hardly worth even detailing the plot-line. You've undoubtedly heard it all before.
For what it's worth though, here it is. Thirty-something John (David McCaffrey) pays a visit with his posh fiancée Mary (Saskia Willis) to his drab childhood home on Christmas Eve. It rapidly becomes obvious though that the festive sprit is in short supply: mum's just died, the telly's been repossessed and turkey and decorations have been declared too expensive. As if that wasn't enough, John's father Jack (Colin Hill) is a sexually repressed, bible bashing pervert, and of his two brothers, one's a paranoid schizophrenic and the other a thieving alcoholic.
There are a couple of good laughs in the show, mainly in the form of Jack's delightfully acerbic one-liners. On the whole though, this is pretty mundane stuff, full of stock characters and fairly uninspired acting. There's also something vaguely embarrassing about watching actors rubbing TCP on each other's bottoms for a laugh. It's hardly the height of physical comedy.
Alongside the attempted humour there's also a fair splashing of soppy sentimentality and cack-handed social criticism. The play is set in an unnamed northern city in the early nineties, so the standard anti-Thatcher truisms are quickly trotted out: long-term unemployment, industrial decline, and the lack of support to the mentally ill and their families. It's not to denigrate the importance of these issues, but it's all been done before, and so much better. I wouldn't bother interrupting your late-night shopping for this lacklustre Christmas turkey.
Running until 23rd December
Reviewer: John Cardale