HARRY’S CHRISTMAS – ⭐️⭐️⭐️ – it’s anything but merry

Stephen Smith, photograph by Bonnie Britain

HARRY’S CHRISTMAS

by Steven Berkoff

Directed by Scott Le Crass

King’s Head Theatre – until 24 December 2022

https://kingsheadtheatre.com/whats-on/harrys-christmas

A Steven Berkoff Christmas show was never gonna be all cards and fairy lights, although both of these do feature in this production, along with a tree, copious amounts of booze and a massive dose of existential despair, but anybody planning to watch Scott Le Crass’s accomplished version of this 1985 solo play, needs to brace themselves for just how grim it gets. I can’t think of anything more depressing on any current London stage…but by the same token I can’t think of many shows as brutally relevant right now either.

When we first encounter Harry (Stephen Smith, whose Threedumb Theatre Company is presenting this production in aid of the anti-suicide charity CALM), he is shuffling around his wan-looking abode, a couple of days before December 25th, in a garishly cheery Christmas jumper, trying to work out whether he should bring out some of last year’s festive cards to bolster the paltry display of the half dozen he received this season. It’s more sad than funny, sweet even, with Smith’s innate likability enhancing Harry’s already potent pathos: the mirthless grin, slightly stooped posture, regular swigs from a can of cheap cider…this is a tender and tough portrait of a man only in very early middle age but already beaten by life.

As the play progresses though, we learn the true extent of Harry’s isolation and also, equally disturbingly, about his anger management issues and fairly unreconstructed attitude to women (one suspects that this aspect of his character was seen as less problematic when Harry’s Christmas premiered in 1985). His desperation for connection and utter hopelessness feel real, but so do his less palatable traits such as self-pity and a chronic lack of self awareness. Berkoff’s writing, pitched at a point somewhere between banal and poetic, that occasionally gets a little wearisome, with a characteristic (for this writer) overlay of the obscene, finds bleak humour in Harry’s sensitive but mind-bendingly tedious phone calls to his aged mother or an ill-advised exchange with a long lost friend which culminates in him being on speaker phone with his mate’s demanding toddler. His internal voice, by turns cajoling then taunting, speak to him, and us, over the sound system.

This is all a lead-up though to the main point of the play, which is how loneliness can blight a life, and how the apparent joys of the Christmas season can throw such feelings into even starker relief. Harry ends up giving in to the dark side, in a chilling overdose scene performed with a remarkable sort of abandoned precision by Smith. It’s not an easy watch, but if it causes anybody who sees it to stop and reach out to someone they know who is spending Christmas alone, then it’s worth it.

In all honesty, Smith reads as too young, vital and attractive to fully convince as Harry, at least initially, but he compellingly charts the character’s tempestuous journey between snarling misanthropy, abject dejection, and, ultimately, complete abandonment of any attempt at hope. You may not necessarily like Harry but it’s hard to feel something for him.

Director Le Crass does a fine, nuanced job of maintaining the tension between how we perceive Harry and perceives himself. The staging is just technically flashy enough to maintain interest across a sometimes harrowing 75 minutes but restrained enough to never run the risk of trivialising or sensationalising the heartrending subject matter. The haunting sound score by Julian Starr, who also collaborated with Le Crass on another solo piece, Rose with Maureen Lipman, which was one of my theatrical highlights of 2022. This is a very different kind of script but in a production that further cements this director’s reputation as a talent to watch.

Harry’s Christmas is about as far removed from traditional festive entertainment as it’s possible to get, and it isn’t for everyone. But, as a consciousness raiser, as well as the chance to see some extraordinarily committed acting at close quarters, this is a worthwhile addition to the capital’s pre-Christmas theatrical offerings.

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