STAGE REVIEWS: 5 Plays of Christmas @ Live Theatre Online | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Cleo Sylvestre in My Door

Words: Nicola Owen

The Whale Washed Up On Christmas Eve is a searing monologue by Sarah Tarbit about a man chained to a trauma so horrifying it has convinced him that he is more beast than man. Chris Connel prowls and growls, spits and snarls as he recounts the events which led to him cutting himself off from those he loves and living alone in his allotment shed. Other people have seen the good in him but Frank can’t see it in himself. Work like this is often described as ‘gritty’ which conveys a sense of grim reality but actually what this performance evokes is a sense of pity and eventual hope for Frank, lost and wounded in his own personal wilderness. Perfectly played by Connel, who captures those warring elements in Frank which make you fear to get close to him but at the same time bring you all down on his side, willing him to find a way to some level of happiness and reconciliation.

Have you met The Boy Who Killed Christmas? You can in Olu Alakija’s The End Of Term Show. Maxwell Martins is the heroic villain of the piece, a boy whose stage fright creates a crisis in the narrative which knocks the school Christmas play off the rails. Brian Lonsdale brilliantly captures the nervous energy of a boy in a 1980s junior school and the outrage of the teacher on whom the success of the school nativity and therefore Christmas itself seems to rest. I loved the fact that the twist depends on an unexpected act of kindness and I’ve enjoyed imagining how the nativity and the characters in it might have turned out if that very same interaction occurred. The writing is funny and pacey and as a fellow survivor of 1980s junior school and veteran of nativity plays I had all the feels for Maxwell’s pain.

Jesu ndiye mufudzi wangu, hapana chandinoshaya,” sings Cleo Sylvestre in My Door by Mandi Chivasa, raising her arms in thanks and praise. After all she is a lady who really doesn’t seem to lack for anything. She owns a talking telly, a snuggly sofa, a phone which is her loyal companion and a cosy Christmas tree. She also has a knocking door but that seems to be broken at the moment. Mandi Chivasa’s gentle, sweet play is brought to life by the magnificent Cleo Sylvestre as Agnes, an eternal optimist who joyfully remembers the delights of a noisy, lively, family-filled Christmas. Her children have grown up now and all her wishes and hard work have come to fruition. Her son has an abundance of money and her daughter is an enamoured newly-wed. Her grandchildren send her texts and Agnes still wraps presents for them all, but there is still the nagging problem of that old broken door that knocks no more. Agnes doesn’t have a self-pitying bone in her body, she’s humble and grateful for what she has but even she has to acknowledge that nothing makes up for authentic face to face connection.

All the plays I watched had a strand of loneliness and isolation woven through them and this feels even more pertinent as we go into Christmas 2020. Under normal circumstances a text at Christmas might feel cold but this year please definitely do text your favourite humans and tell them you love them, call or video-call them, write it in lights or write it in the snow (if you have any) and next year, with any luck, doors will start knocking again.

Words: Maria Winter

From relatable thematic content to brilliantly cheesy jokes, Ellen McNally’s Those Yet To Come is a witty take on a Christmas classic. This heart-warming short play explores the story of Eva, who misses her bus, leading to an unexpected meeting with some Christmas ghosts. With an ingenious twist on a familiar story, Those Yet To Come highlights the importance of optimism, hope and Christmas spirit – a soothing reminder during these uncertain times.

Performed entirely in one space with a minimalistic set, creative director Becky Morris draws our attention to the quality of both the acting and writing. Complimentary to the Geordie slang, the story’s authentic nature is enhanced through costume and naturalistic environment – completely representative of a cold winter’s night in the North East. What’s more, I utterly believed Eva was the eighth-generation granddaughter of Tim Cratchit!

Eilish Stout-Cairns portrays the character of Eva perfectly. Demonstrating the ability to convey such realism, Eilish connects with the audience through her relatable situation, despite the fictional narrative. Her compassionate response to David Raynor’s character (Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come) emphasises the virtue of kindness, and with some comical lines, a light-hearted touch.

William Wyn Davies takes this play to the next level. His eccentric depiction of the Ghost Of Christmas Past contrasts from the emotive elements, providing the audience with humour and grace. By playing on the theatrical side, William’s sudden gestures and quirky comments definitely elevate the storyline. This is a brilliantly written, charmingly performed play – a must-see.

Benjamin Storey’s moving play Skeletons in Cullercoats explores the powerful dynamic between a grieving sister and brother on their short metro journey together. Following Joe’s arrest, Danny must hold everything together for Christmas in spirit of their mother, who passed away. Whether you can relate to the story or not, this provides a universal message – there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone experiences family tensions, grief, or even silly arguments, yet Skeletons in Cullercoats puts all that into perspective. Family is family.

Benjamin’s tender story is brought to life by director Graeme Thompson and conveyed by talented actors Jessica Johnson (Danny) and James Gladdon (Joe). The realistic metro carriage along with announcements play a vital role in the story. The way Jessica and James utilise the space provides an authentic replication of real life, which the audience can connect with. Once connected visually, the pair engage through a contrast of snappy, soft, and comic conversations – a rollercoaster of emotions. Their ability to suddenly switch these emotions is what makes the play special, as it epitomises the unrestrained sensitivities of human beings.

Benjamin’s brilliant writing demonstrates thought-provoking material, without losing Christmas spirit. The song sung by Joe at the start transforms from this inappropriate chant, to an embodiment of unconditional love – perfectly illustrating the rocky brother/sister dynamic. Skeletons in Cullercoats equally presents both the struggles and congruence of remembering a loved one during Christmas time.

Click here to watch all 5 Plays of Christmas on Live Theatre’s website

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