With about 30 or so strangers I am standing in choir formation being instructed to sing Ding Dong Merrily on High by an over-cheery, bossy nurse. On either side of Neath Gwyn Hall’s theatre floor are hospital beds whose Santa hat-wearing occupants are playing ukuleles and accompanying us with gusto. Along with the rest of the audience, I am taking part in the last night of Mercury Theatre Wales’s six-date promenade Christmas show, Anamnesis 25.12.
For the uninitiated (like me), ‘anamnesis’ has two meanings: in psychology, recalling to memory and, in medicine, the complete history recalled and recounted by a patient. Each of the five ‘patients’ has a story to tell.
Bossy Nurse aka Sister Lee, played by the Cardiff-based theatre company’s Artistic Director Bethan Morgan, takes us over to sulky teenager David who doesn’t want the present he’s given by a pre-prompted audience member and says that “Christmas is just not the same now”.
Suddenly, the beds are moved, we sit down on them and watch a flashback to David’s childhood. He and his seven-year-old sister Holly, comically portrayed by mature actress Judith Haley, are decorating the Christmas tree while their harassed mother and recently unemployed, beer-drinking father are arguing over the fact that they cannot afford Christmas presents because he spent the money on a stag weekend. The audience is left wondering why teenage David is in hospital and why the festive season no longer appeals to him.
Each story is enjoyably interspersed by the cast and audience singing a carol. Next we visit pensioner Stephen (with a nasty cough), who receives a Skype call from his grandson, Cole. We learn that they are estranged because Cole is getting married to a man – and Stephen does not remotely approve of this. Both actors make this scene a believable, moving moment.
The third sketch is about Nicholas, a department store Father Christmas (or is he the real deal?), who is in hospital after receiving a head injury. We flashback to a scene where he is visited by a troubled young girl called Angel, played by Francesca Goodridge who also happens to have an angelic singing voice. Angel, who is beaten by her father and possibly abused by her uncle, will do anything to get the present she wants including threatening to tell her club bouncer old man that St Nick ‘touched’ her.
The lights go down, the Glenn Miller Orchestra strikes up and we are transported to a World War II dance hall. With Churchill’s speeches in the background, the cast dance with each other and some audience members (me included) before acting out a scene of a couple meeting, getting married, him going off to war and her finding out that he has been killed not long after she has had a baby. How do you follow that? With a rendition of Silent Night in Welsh, of course.
After another Skype call featuring Stephen and his daughter, who tells him that an old friend of his has been trying to get in touch, we come to the funniest sketch of the evening in which we find out how 91-year old Carole ended up in hospital. The farce involves a couple (great comic timing from Daniel Rochford who played husband Noel), living in a converted barn called The Stables, whose daughter invites a Spanish alcoholic homeless thief called Jésus for Christmas lunch and includes family tensions everyone can relate to.
Stephen’s story brings the show to a close. It turns out that his ‘old friend’ is Gabriel, the gay lover of his youth with whom he was unable to make a life due to parental pressure and old-fashioned attitudes. By the time they are on the verge of meeting again, it is too late as Stephen had died. This entertaining, moving, Christmassy show wasn’t just about recalling the past but reminding us to live our lives now and make the most of every moment.