Theatre N16 11 – 22 December.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Christmas by Simon Stephens is as festive as a bowl of cold sprouts. The bleak and lonely reality of Christmas for so many people is portrayed with dark humour and authenticity.

Set in an instantly recognisable dingy pub, the regulars – all two of them – chat with the landlord. A postman comes in for a drink too. That’s about it as far as the action goes. Stephens squeezes every bit of angst possible out of the characters – never losing the naturalistic flow of the conversation and scattering instances of deep thought amongst the inanity, just as real drinkers do.

The dire financial situation of barman Michael, barber Guiseppe and hodcarrier Billy weigh them down, as they muse about community, tradition, family and home. Guiseppe (Alec Gray) is the most effusive and repetitive story teller, as befits his age and nationality – and Gray evokes the grief and loneliness of the widower magnificently. Jack Bence is full of twitches and ticks as the heavy drinking, emotionally damaged Billy – punctuating every sentence with foul language, but still emanating a childlike quality. Brendan Weakliam’s forlorn Michael keeps an eye on proceedings, while Christopher Sherwood as Charlie stirs up trouble with his bitter questions, delivered with mocking smiles. Comic relief is provided by Tom Telford as various customers, none of whom stay long under the hostile glares of the regulars.

Directors Jamie Eastlake and Sarah Chapleo don’t rush the pace. Long moments of awkward silence add to the sense of isolation and hopelessness. There are glimmers of light where characters could make a change in their lives, but you just know that they’ll be back in their safe haven next week. Relevant and hard hitting, Christmas is well worth seeing – if only to remind you that spending Christmas with your family isn’t as bad as it seems.