Love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Christmas. Set in a wretched London pub during a bleak December marked by mounting poverty and unfocused anxiety, Simon Stephens’ retort to notions of festive good cheer has only grown more relevant since its 2004 premier.
Bitterly funny, sad, and extremely slow-burning, it remains engaging thanks to its recognisable characters and vividly naturalistic dialogue. Director Sarah Chapleo does nothing to accelerate the pace, letting a mood of gathering grief permeate the air like cigarette smoke. She lingers on every detail, creating some gorgeous wordless moments – long, awkward pauses as pints are pulled and solicitors’ letters are read.
We are well into the performance before any conflict emerges, with the arrival of one-man pub crawl Charlie, played by Christopher Sherwood. Mocking, charming and confrontational, he probes the other characters’ tragedies even as he nosedives into his own misery.
Jack Bence is superb as unemployed labourer Billy, 29 and living with his mum, already developing the careful, wobbly diction of the serious alcoholic. Meanwhile, Alec Gray is touching and believable as ageing widower Giuseppe, rambling nostalgically about his wife, about Italy, and about the residue of hope he somehow retains.
Perfectly suited to Theatre N16’s pre-existing barroom space, there is little in the way of set dressing here, just a few flaccid strands of tinsel, a few empty tables. The effect is nonetheless immersive and intimate, an austere setting for a challenging play, at once desolate and full of humanity.