Present

Ali Pritchard
Alphabetti
Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle
to

Malcolm Shields (foreground) with (L to R) Martha Wheatley, Wilf Stone and Diji Solanke

It’s getting towards Christmas and Scotsman Dave (Malcolm Shields), of indeterminate age but looking to be around 60, homeless and drunk, dances in the park while swigging from a bottle of Frosty Jack’s. It’s a wild, almost tribal dance—perhaps as much a means of keeping warm as dancing for its own sake!

Then he gets a text message. It’s from his daughter. His grandson, Albert, is now six and wants to meet his granddad. But, daughter Suzie warns, he’d better not turn up drunk because if he does, she’d won’t let him in.

No, he won’t be drunk. Not with the chance to meet his grandson. He’s giving up the drink. He can do this. He will be Grandfather Christmas. Meeting Albert will be the best ever Christmas present. He can do it.

Present is the story of Dave’s struggle to “do it.” I shall say no more about it because I don’t want to give anything away, for the tale is full of little twists and turns and we learn so much about Dave and how he came to be how he is—the story of a man’s despair, encapsulated in a one-hour performance.

Writer and director Ali Pritchard, Alphabetti’s Artistic Director, has chosen to give us just one actor but also three musicians (Wilf Stone, Martha Wheatley and Diji Solanke, under the musical direction of Mariam Rezaei) whose quite minimalist playing underscores and reinforces what we see and hear from the actor, who, incidentally, is also credited as the choreographer (presumably of the dance), and Martin Hylton, who has been responsible for choreography and movement of so many Northern Stage Christmas productions, including this year’s The Snow Queen, is the movement director. The creative team is completed by designer Rosie Bristow whose minimalist (that word again!) set is rough, ready and very effective.

Homelessness and family relationships, particularly at Christmas, are, of course, the central themes of the play, but quite a few more are touched on, often to great effect in what seems a very short hour. So short does it seem, in fact, that it comes as quite a shock to realise just how much has been said. So much said in so little time so effectively.

It’s a real challenge for one actor to hold the stage for a whole hour, especially when—initially at any rate—your character is not particularly appealing. Shields, though, manages it, right from the start, and, what is more, has the courage (and, believe me, it takes courage!) to hold long periods of silence and stillness. These silences pack a great deal of emotion but, to the actor, they do seem to go on for ever!

And yes, there is a certain amount of sentimentality in the ending but that’s Christmas, isn’t it? From the fuzzily warm little robin hopping through the Christmas card snow to It’s a Wonderful Life, Christmas is a time for sentimentality.

Is it happy ever after? Or unhappy every after? Or that human reality, a mixture of the two? You’ll just have to see it to find out. I can promise you, it will be worth your while.

There was one piece of second-night serendipity at Wednesday’s show. There was a young mother in the audience with her very young child, a child at that stage of speech development when (s)he has learned the rhythms of conversation but doesn’t have the words to converse, so we had this commentary, sometimes a question, even the occasional exclamation, from that little voice in the front row. So far from proving a distraction, this actually added another layer to an already layered piece. If I were Ali Pritchard, I’d be booking mam to bring that child every night!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan