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Simon Stephens's seasonal play about a boozer facing refurbishment re-opens refurbished boozer the White Bear
The White Bear theatre pub has had a serious refurb. Gone are the framed caricatures of Millwall legends past and present. In their place, planks of driftwood, tastefully painted in Scandinavian blues and greys.
That makes this early Simon Stephens play – first seen at the Bush a decade ago – a pointed piece of programming from Michael Kingsbury. Set in an old-school East End boozer, adrift in a sea of Shoreditch sandwich shops and first-wave hipsters, ‘Christmas’ mourns a lost London.
Drowning in debt, landlord Michael MacGraw (William Ely) holds fort heroically. His regulars include Billy (Ralph Aiken), a young builder who is essentially paid to price himself out of the neighbourhood, and long-time local Giuseppe (Lionel Guyett), a spivvy Italian hairdresser. They’re joined by Charlie (James Groom), a postman in a (newly poignant) Royal Mail T-shirt, celebrating a lottery win, with a heart as heavy as the cello case he’s lugging around.
It’s a classic – occasionally clichéd – study of maudlin masculinity. Christmas is coming – a trickle of tinsel runs round the bar – and the men are all missing others: dads, wives, children. They’re stuck in the past. Sentiment sloshes around like the dregs of a pint, corny jokes stand in for conversation and Frank Sinatra – as smooth as these men are sad – looks down from the wall. That’s life…
Ten years on, though, this portrait of impending gentrification seems almost quaint, at least compared to reality. Linking it to globalisation and London’s new-found internationalism, feels prescient, but now, given property prices and stagnant wages, you crave something livid, not wistful and resigned. Still, as Giuseppe puts it, ‘It’s possible to miss a place without wanting to go back.’
Kingsbury’s production, a decent account, doesn’t quite get the full measure of ‘Christmas’. It lacks detail and isn’t steeped in melancholy. Groom’s Charlie isn’t quite the inspiring intervention he needs be, but Ely holds things together behind the bar with a stoical and sympathetic performance.