FringeReview UK 2022
Steven Berkoff’s analysis of loneliness at Christmas asks difficult questions of the timeless nature of British society and its relationship with the festive season.
“So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun.” In supermarkets, shopping centres, pubs, cafes, on radio stations and at parties, these lyrics from Slade’s monster yuletide hit have burbled out every December for pretty much the last half century. It’s a given, isn’t it ? Everybody’s having fun. Everyone is filled with festive cheer : Christmas parties, presents, stockings, crackers, mulled wine – the list is endless. Steven Berkoff’s Harry’s Christmas dares to take another look, to offer the darker side of the season.
The audience enters The Kings Heads’ three-quarters round space, to see our protagonist, Harry, putting the final touches to his Christmas tree, part of a modest domestic setting. He seems uncertain about these details, despite the apparently trivial nature of the exercise. What becomes clear, however, is that the angst, the fussing, are symptoms of a deeper malaise concerning Harry’s relationship with the season. He agonises over the number of Christmas cards he has received, conducting a convoluted analysis of the trade-off of cards sent versus those received and their significance – the ones from close family “don’t really count”. Harry has retained cards from previous years, an early tell. A further bout of naval-gazing centres around whether some of these previous years’ cards should be displayed. Further layers unravel – what if the previous years’ cards are dated and an as yet unspecified visitor should spot this ? But the most damning reason for the concern begins to become clear –Harry perceives that the number of cards received are a litmus test of his popularity and his consequent insecurity begins to be revealed.
An overwhelmingly lonely man, Harry wants to embrace Christmas, but deep down he knows that more than a measure of popularity, it hints at his standing in society ; or even, nihilistically, whether his life has any meaning. Therefore, the veneer of Christmas bonhomie begins to crumble, iteratively, almost metronomically in time to the countdown to the big day. His thought process about contacting old friends increasingly hints at an obsessive nature. As the big day comes, his solo intake of alcohol has ramped up and worse is to come. He telephones his mother and aborts the traditional Christmas Day visit. He seems unaware of the shattering irony of this decision – he is condemning his mother to the Christmas loneliness which he so fears.
Berkoff’s script examines the underside of the festivities and their hackneyed traditions (Harry pulls a cracker with himself – and loses), but moreover the impact of the season for some : isolation, self-consciousness, self-doubt, depression or worse. Families instinctively circle around each other or even go on holiday, inadvertently neglecting friends. Party season can be brutal for those who are not socially adept. Threedumb Theatre’s revival of Harry’s Christmas is more timely than ever, given the current cost of living crisis. Scott Le Crass’ sensitive direction allows the consistently terrific Stephen Smith to build, to show vulnerability, demonstrate his desperate journey, internalising anxiety but occasionally raging at the season and society. Smith takes the character Berkoff presents and puts his own carefully crafted stamp on it, with complexity and subtlety.
Harry is superficially a likeable everyman, but we see glimpses of disturbing character traits – obsession and misogyny (he refers to former partners as “pigs”). Is Berkoff permitting a small insight into the causes of relationship failures – and if so, is Harry’s loneliness self-inflicted or societal ?
For many people, Christmas assumes an intangible, mystical status of joy and goodwill, in which people are supposed to smile a little easier. However, Berkoff’s play reminds us to spare a thought for those who, far from relating to Slade’s lyrics, are substantially better represented by The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby.