As I took my seat in the characterless and sanitised Soho Theatre auditorium, I was in the strange position of knowing more about the process that went into making this show than the show itself. Tales of nineteen painful weeks of devising with a cast of male RSC actors who happened to find themselves between Shakespeares had been aired extensively in preview pieces. Anthony Neilson, the writer/director, seemed faintly ambivalent and the some of the cast openly frustrated. Distracted by this intriguing collision between a vast traditional institution and the messy, unpredictable methods of Neilson, I’d rather managed to forget that there was an actual show at the heart of it all. And so it was a rather nice surprise to be able to sit down without a clue what was to follow.
What did follow was, in the end, as frustrating as it was enjoyable. A grotesque, deliciously sordid, incoherent montage of metropolitan Christmas clichés slung loosely over the season’s most inevitable narrative, that of the fallen man and his redemption.
The opening sets the scene perfectly. In front of an incongruously chic modern apartment set, littered with expensive spirits and knowing pop culture artefacts, a familiar Dickensian Bob Cratchit character sits working at a wooden desk. Scrooge enters bubbling over with the kind of relentlessly annoying Christmas spirit normally reserved for local news reporters and Americans. It is three years on from A Christmas Carol and Cratchit is absolutely sick of his redeemed master; painfully aware that a damascene conversion is for life, not just for Christmas. The scene works beautifully, a one note gag dragged out into painful realism; a comic skit tortured into tragedy. It’s a hugely funny dissection of the superficial myths and aphorisms that fuel our intoxicating relationship with this anachronistic celebration.
Following this prologue we are launched into the main story, of a typical anguished London TV producer, drunk, miserable, estranged from his wife and the daughter he has let down. There is never any doubt that he is our modern day Scrooge, a man so pathetic he didn’t even manage to do anything particularly bad; just usher some barrel-scraping reality TV into the world and post naked photos of his wife on the internet. Over the course of an hour or so he takes the road most travelled towards a Christmas redemption and the inevitable meeting with his daughter.
So far so utterly predictable, but what makes Neilson’s show watchable, even enjoyable (and at points absolutely hilarious) is the chaotic, meandering, seedy journey to this inevitable conclusion. The show, and the Christmassy London it conjures, is beguilingly charmless. A sickly cocktail of addiction groups, festive pizzas, shamelessly low-concept television shows, drink, drugs, internet sex, and the most truculent ghost of a dead father since Hamlet with a mouth like a fucking sewer. In possibly the show’s best scene the stage is slowly flooded by festival dressed men signing carols and chugging obscene amounts of various drugs, as the space becomes a whirling, raucous melee of coke, pills, booze and songs the scene is suddenly interrupted by a figure in white carrying a baby Jesus. All the actors begin to gather like carol singers at the front of the stage before the baby’s head is ripped off to reveal a stash of pills and the orgy of drug taking and out of tune singing continues.
With seedy, effortless élan Neilson tears tradition and convention to pieces, revelling in a nihilistic excess that reminds us how shallow and meaningless have become the affectations of spirituality and good will that Christmas is supposed to be about. Neilson is clever. His gags are frequently brilliant. He has a turn of phrase that is as poetic as it is stinging and cruel. It feels appropriate that the RSC should be putting on his show because at his best, his relentless wordplay is as witty and as rude as any of the crowd pleasing dick jokes that Shakespeare used to churn out.
And if anything this show was further proof that Neilson is at his best when he is writer/director – giving him the freedom to mercilessly disrupt the form of the show in the same way that he chews to pieces the narrative. It’s just a shame that what could have been this show’s most meaningful and powerful moment, as the auditorium is invaded by a homeless man, was almost entirely deflated by the fact that the actor had already been seen on stage. Nevertheless his presence was brutal, uncomfortable and intimidating; a soldier and a beggar, the two characters we’d rather not think about when we’re trying to be festive.
And yet I never felt like there was enough beyond all these tricks and turns of phrase, through the sludge of nastiness and excess. The structure on which it all lay felt trite and mechanical. I never felt convinced that Neilson gave a shit about our stereotypically guilt-ridden TV producer or his inevitable redemption when it finally came. Unlike Wonderful World of Dissocia, Neilson’s last show, there was nothing haunting or honest or meaningful beating at the heart of all this chaos. I stepped out into the cold streets of Soho with the ending almost entirely forgotten, left only with the slurry of shameful, seedy excesses that had proceeded it. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we need a shot of sourness at this time of year, to counter the sugary sentimentality that coats everything like a thick layer of snow.