For those already nauseous from the mawkish sentimentality that permeates the festive season, The Night Before Christmas at Southwark Playhouse will serve as a welcome respite. Set (as the title implies) on Christmas Eve, Anthony Neilson’s play tells the story of an elf (Dan Starkey) caught breaking into a dodgy London warehouse after hours.
a frenetic 70 minutes of expletive-laden lewd absurdist dark comedy
As the play opens, the elf’s captor Gary (Douggie McMeekin) – a sort of bumbling Del Boy with a penchant for prostitutes – has tied him up with fairy lights and called in his mate Simon (Michael Salami) to help decide what to do. Grouchy Simon is understandably less than convinced by the elf’s claim that he came to the warehouse – toolkit in hand – after accidentally falling from an ‘International Gift Distribution Agency’ sleigh. What follows is a frenetic 70 minutes of expletive-laden lewd absurdist dark comedy, as Simon, Gary, and local sex worker Cherry (Unique Spencer), interrogate the elf’s story; and in the process, their own misgivings over the true spirit of Christmas. Imagine a John Lewis Christmas advert scripted by Irvine Welsh, and you’re some way there.
First produced in 1995, The Night Before Christmas has been brought up to date with a smattering of current(ish) pop-culture references (Simon Cowell and Power Rangers?) for a four-week run at Southwark Playhouse. Director Alex Sutton has taken the reigns for what is undoubtedly an energetic production.
Whilst the premise of this play instinctively appealed to my inner cynic, I found myself struggling to engage in a plot that never seemed to evolve beyond a few shoe-horned revelations and well-trodden tropes about the growing influence of consumer capitalism on Christmas. The frantic pacing and rapid-fired one-liners that dominate the dialogue overwhelm a few token attempts to add depth and nuance to the characters; finally feeling like an over-running sketch at an improvised comedy club. This is perhaps unsurprising in a production that is itself so clearly characterised as an antidote to yuletide sentimentality. However, in the absence of real emotional investment, The Night Before Christmas is left over-reliant on increasingly outrageous humour to maintain interest to the end.
if you’re looking for an evening of acerbic entertainment to cleanse a sickly-sweet festive palate, you’ll find yourself in good company
For their part, the cast members perform well. Douggie McMeekin brings enough affable charm to dim-witted Gary to dilute the character’s most deplorable tendencies (almost) to within forgivable limits. Michael Salami’s sharp and incredulous Simon, meanwhile, provides a comedically rich counterbalance to the duo. Unique Spencer arrives just in time to reignite the dramatic tension. Her frank and feisty Cherry – who turns up at the warehouse in search of a promised gift for her son – brings with her a much-welcomed extra dimension to the farcical premise. Dan Starkey is perfectly cast as the softly-spoken junkie Elf, literally addicted to Christmas spirit.
The Night Before Christmas is certainly not a merry treat for all the family, but if you’re looking for an evening of acerbic entertainment to cleanse a sickly-sweet festive palate, you’ll find yourself in good company.