runs until 4 January
If panto’s not your thing and White Christmas leaves you feeling a little nauseous, Encompass Productions present their antidote to Christmas theatre, This Is Not A Christmas Play; in fact, it’s so anti-Christmas it would be easy to miss the fact that it’s set on 25 December at all. Eschewing sentimentality, this attempt at traditional farce with a contemporary twist focuses on flatmates – hard-working but slightly deluded David (Matthew Leigh) and lazy slacker Tim (Jordan Kouame) – who are resolutely ignoring the festive period.
Things take a turn for the bizarre when these two holiday humbugs have a day that is, in fact, far more eventful than the average Yuletide when they become the targets of hapless criminals Mary (Alice Coles) and Clive (James Unsworth). Unfortunately, while the script has potential, there isn’t enough focus or confident enough performances to maintain the sparkle and wit needed for such a farce.
Credit where credit’s due, there are some funny moments and the script has some neat gags tucked away, particularly if you’re au fait with the plethora of movie references embedded in it by writers Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming. Yet sadly I too often found myself thinking that something should be funny, rather than spontaneously laughing at it, and there is an awkward and stilted atmosphere throughout. Unfortunately, the press night was plagued with some technical issues, so perhaps it is this that sapped some of the vital energy and verve from the show – it must be discouraging for the cast when things beyond their control aren’t going to plan and it certainly affected some scenes, which presumably will make more sense in later performances when the issues are corrected.
However, even when this is taken into account, the whole production lacks the big laughs and panache it so desperately needs. The writing and directing team of Wallis, Fleming and Jonathan Woodhouse don’t appear to know what they want this show to be. There is physical comedy, wordplay, romance, crime, and even some understated drama; yet instead of blending them skilfully, the writers have slammed them all together awkwardly, producing a hotch-potch play – a Frankensteinian monster, if you will, where the different styles are stitched together and given life but the overall result is rather unwieldy. In order for this show to reach its potential, it should be stripped back a little to gain stronger identity and to focus on shaping a more compelling plot and easier flow. The pacing, too, is rather odd: while at points the script dives headfirst into situations with little preamble or build-up, at others the slowness of the piece begins to grate, in particular the final scene where syrupy sentimentality rather undermines the origins of the work.
More refinement would doubtless help the cast too, who flounder slightly despite some solid attempts. There is a slight tendency to overact (Leigh) or underact (Kouame) but the relationship between David and Tim is nicely done, and Unsworth shows potential as a strong character actor – although it does seem a little out of place here without the right element of riotous farce to accommodate him. Overall the quartet unfortunately cannot mask the rather laboured nature of this albeit short work.
I do believe this is a show worth investing time in, as the concept and cast show real promise; if the script and pacing are given a careful overhaul, and a dose more passion injected into the whole thing, it could be transformed into a welcome festive alternative. As it is, This Is Not A Christmas Play is more of a cold turkey than a Christmas cracker.