As the Christmas season inevitably approaches, and with it Christmas-themed shows are brought to the stage, there is a general feeling this year that the mood with which the theme is approached is mainly going to be characterised by dark irony. This is not at all a bad thing; if there is a risk surrounding the collective experience of Christmas is that of a cleaned-up, overly soppy take on a festivity that inevitably dips into the rhetoric of good feelings. Cheer, on stage for the Christmas slot at the Other Room at Porter’s, engages precisely with this matter – with both sides of it. It does so precisely with dark irony, and with some bold narrative choices and interesting ideas. The concept of a society in which Christmas celebrations are a luxury to be acquired through a special licence, and there is therefore a market for festive contraband, is a clever satire on consumerism and the increasing social divide of our time, and a premise that could lead to a variety of different realisations: one comes out of the play, in a sense, with a curiosity for other possible tales that could be told in this universe. Similarly, the concept of a drug being developed that simulates the experience of Christmas cheer and the way it makes you feel – the play is named after that – is ingenious and brave: having characters do drugs on stage throughout the narration certainly establishes a specific kind of mood and evokes an intriguing, darkly comedic atmosphere. In a sense, the framing of the story comes close to something like what would be Irvine Welsh’s take on Christmas.
Both performers lend charm and believability to their characters and their interactions, though one of the protagonists – Todd, the down-on-his-luck barman trying to get himself a Christmas licence by any means necessary – is far easier to identify and empathise with, in spite of the writing’s great effort to make both not only credible, but relatable. It can be different to empathise with the pains of the privileged, and the text itself calls this out, displaying an awareness of the issue that will inevitably make the character of Jules feel more distant to the audience. As the stage chemistry between the performers is good and their interactions are credible, the show is at its best when it lets its message simply seep through and become apparent through the interplay of its characters. There are moments in which the writing feels the need to spell out its social message more clearly, and those are also the moments in which its impact decreases and with it its relatability. Because of the great strength of its premise, the fact that its characters are well-rounded, and the interesting nature of its universe, Cheers is one of those productions that benefit the most from subtlety and a tongue-in-cheek approach, and the blunter sections suffer somewhat when compared with the rest.
Similarly, the play suffers at times from some sections being excessively drawn out; one has the feeling that it would be more incisive and impactful if its running time was cut somewhat, and the more confrontational moments between the two characters shortened into more direct but more cutting exchanges. Where the narration is tighter, the play works like clockwork: it is genuinely funny, intriguing, endearing, capable of capturing its audience’s attention. When its pace loosens up, it fall into the temptation of addressing its underlying social concerns in somewhat too blunt a fashion, that ends being less effective than the sections in which the allegorical possibility of the play’s setting are fully exploited.
As someone who very much dislikes the more public manifestations of Christmas cheer, enjoys dark humour, and greatly appreciates the ability of a play to tread onto more uncomfortable ground, I still found Cheer an excellent approach to the Christmas season, and a good way to reflect about what it is exactly that we are doing with our tinsel and carols and log fires. The idea of a Christmas dystopia is in itself worthy of praise. While the play would benefit from being tighter and perhaps faster-page, it is an unconventional approach to the subject and one that is thoughtful without being soppy. Whoever’s looking for a Christmas show of a different kind than usual will not be disappointed with it.
Until December 15
Image: Tess Seymour