Theatre Review: This Is Not A Christmas Play (Top Secret Comedy Club, London)

Jordan Kuoame (left) and MAtthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Jordan Kouame (left) and Matthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Rating: ***

In A Nutshell

Some great comic turns and fresh ideas, but is let down by some awkward pitching and pacing.

Overview

David and Tim, have made a pact: to sit through Christmas Day without mentioning and acknowledging it. Will David’s ex turn up for dinner? Will Tim pay this month’s rent? And just who are the torrent of bizarre characters that keep coming in and out of their flat?

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (;left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Sofi Berenger.

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Writing

Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming of Encompass productions turn their hand to providing an alternative but fun and frivolous seasonal titbit that does away with the trappings of British Christmas theatre. It’s a comedy, and it starts off as such. There are some wonderfully comic turns in the script, especially in it’s knowing nods at the fact that you just can’t quite escape the holidays. Some of these moments are laugh out loud, especially when executed with some of the impeccable comic timing from the cast. There are also great reference moments that, if you do get, are incredibly well placed and delivered.

However, Wallis and Flemming then start to turn the play into a farce, and this is where This Is Not A Christmas Play starts to lose its lustre. Farce is perhaps the most difficult theatrical genre to master: it requires an astute ability for punchy timing and just the right of amount of silliness. Thankfully, Wallis and Flemming never make the on-stage shenanigans too over-the-top and unconvincing: one of the easiest mistakes to make in farces make. But the problem is that the gags just don’t have the requisite energy and weight to meet the very high bar needed. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that good direction can fix: it’s a pacing that needs to already be there in the writing. This is not helped that sometimes it lingers a little to long on an attempt to make the character’s have too emotional an epiphany, as this ends up dragging the pace down even more. It’s something that could have comfortably have had it’s placed in a more straightforward comedy, but something that really irks the pace of a farce.

What this means is that, in trying to tread water in an area between comedy and farce, the pacing and therefore the pitch of the play is somewhat awkward. The energy is never consistent meaning everything stops and starts too often. But that doesn’t mean that Wallis and Flemming fail at either genres. especially as there are some inspired gags that are well set-up and executed. It’s just that they don’t excel at both.

I have a great deal of admiration for any writers who turn a hand at farce, because it’s something that can so easily go wrong. But despite Wallis and Flemming not hitting the mark, it’s still a solid and promising attempt. And even if it is uneven and sometimes ineffectual, the comedy that they do get right provide for a an enjoyable and grin-inducing hour.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left)  and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Direction & Production

Sarah Buller’s set does a wonderful job of turning the bare space of the Top Secret Comedy Club into a squalid flat. Everything from the snack detritus to grimy carpets are wonderful little details. But despite its grotty appearance, Buller has managed to turn the stage into something that, but for some much needed deep cleaning, is quite homely.

Director Johnathan Woodhouse and Associate Director Rachel Owens also make good use of the space, especially with regards to movement. In the chase scene/climax, it really does brim with a manic energy and sense of fun, with unexpected little turns and quips. Elsewhere, Woodhouse and Owens make sure that the comedy that does works really comes through: nothing else gets in the way of the good jokes, understanding the turnaround from punch-line to laughter thus giving the audience the space they need to react appropriately.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Cast

This Is Not A Christmas Play certainly has a great comic cast. Jordan Kouame, especially, has a wonderfully lightness and knowing in everything he does that really enhance his share of the gags. His physicality is also spot on for his comic moments, too. Although an actor who has a natural physical dominance, there’s still room for comic nuance in his presence. Furthermore, despite the clash of personality against his counterpart, Matthew Leigh as David, together they bounce their opposing charismas off each other to make themselves out as a wonderful odd couple.

James Unsworth, as Clive, embodies very similar qualities to Kouame in churning out another comic performance of a high standard, but has the added luxury of looking surprisingly dashing in just a pair of shiny hot pants!

Alice Coles, as Mary, as also enacts some wonderful moments of colourful melodrama. Between her and Unsworth, they carry the moments where the farce almost works, injecting a hilarious shot of gusto and fun as the piece’s unlikely villains.

Verdict

Despite stumbling somewhere between the two genres it tries to straddle, it’s still a giggly-good evening for all that does work with it. A fun alternative for those who come out in a cold sweat at the thought of panto or Christmas shows, but still embracing a warm sense of fun and good cheer that comes with all the festive fuss.

[youtube http://youtu.be/YJSHv-0XnNo]

This Is Not A Christmas Play runs at the Top Secret Comedy Club, London, WC2B 5PD, until 4 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk/this-is-not-a-christmas-play.

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