17 December 2014

Christmas (the play) at White Bear Theatre was tense, funny, emotional and very real

It was a playwright, Chekhov, who first got me to go to the White Bear Theatre with an adaptation of Three Sisters and it was another playwright, Simon Stephens, who got me back there to see his play Christmas.

It was not quite as simple as that as it took me a while to realise who Simon Stephens was, or rather what he had done. It was Wikipedia that informed me that one of Stephens' plays was Port and as I loved the production at the National Theatre that was all the convincing that I needed.

It helped that he adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I had also loved.

All I needed then was a free evening and I found one on a Wednesday when I was working in London. It was a late decision to go and I booked the ticket on the day.

My first visit to the White Bear Theatre had warned me of the impossibility of getting food there, or anywhere nearby, so I planned to get something from Kings Cross when passing through but the new up-market concourse is either devoid of pasty shops or they are well hidden well away from the entrances to the Underground so I had to do without.

My first visit to the White Bear Theatre also taught me where it is and this time I turned left out Kennington station instead of right and I was at the theatre in just a couple of minutes.

I was pleased to see that the pub did pies, they had not done food previously, but less pleased to see that none of the options were vegetarian. I settled for a packet of dry roasted peanuts which, sadly, is not unusual when I have evening events. The Young's Ordinary was as good as I remembered it from the last time and that mattered more than eating.

The box office opened soon after 7pm to sell tickets to new arrivals and to give them out to people like myself who had booked them earlier (only four hours earlier in my case). The multitude of booking systems meant that they did not know for certain how many tickets they had sold and newcomers were warned that they might not get in.

On collecting my tickets I was told that the show would be without an interval and I took that as a hint to buy another beer to take in with me.

The doors to the theatre opened almost by accident just before the 7:30 start time. Somebody walked in and was not stopped so the rest of us followed him in. Despite the booking confusion everybody managed to get in and the place looked pleasingly full. I like full theatres.

Leaving the bar to go in to the theatre was to swap one bar for another, though the pub we moved in to was from another era, Christmas 2003 apparently (though the publican says at one point that Frank Sinatra died last year and that was in 1998). Behind the bar Michael was getting ready for his customers. Billy-Lee was the first to arrive. He was a casual worked who still lived at home with his mother.

The strong language was bit of a surprise at first but it was perfectly natural, I remember when we spoke like that in my local. The C-Bomb was sprinkled like a sparkler through the conversation and was used as an adjective too but it was said in a calm way and did not shock.

Later they were joined by local barber Guissepe, an Italian who had settled in London years ago and who had lost his wife a couple of years previously.

The final significant character was a postman who had just won some money betting on a horse and was going on a pub crawl to celebrate. He was drawn to this pub because he had been there some years ago.

A few other people came, did something slightly weird and then left.

The conversations ranged widely, as pub conversations do, and covered some familiar topics like football but they were also quite personal at times as each was asked about their plans for the future and incidents in the past. To pick just one example, Guissepe had an offer to go back to Italy to live with his brother that exposed aspects of his relationship to his brother and also to his deceased wife.

All of the characters had flaws and secrets to hide, as we all do, and some of these were gently teased out by their familiarity with each other and by the convivial nature of pubs (not bars). Accusations were made and tempers flared at times but the general mood was conviviality and the play was both funny and emotionally engaging. These were real people with real hopes, dreams and problems. I cared about them and wanted to know what was going to happen to them all.

Because of its language as much as anything, Christmas was the sort of play that will not appeal to everybody but those of us who made it to the White Bear Theatre had an entertaining, if tense, evening that we rewarded with long and enthusiastic applause at the end. I may have whooped.

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