There is a famous John Mortimer quote that “farce is a tragedy played at 1000 revolutions per minute.” If that is true, then This Is Not A Christmas Play is a tragedy that ambles along at its own leisurely pace. The ideas for a farce are there, but they rarely gather the necessary momentum. The script meanders through too many different styles of comedy for any of them to be properly funny. At best, it raises a couple of mild titters. At worst it is bewilderingly awful.
The strained friendship between sponging layabout extraordinaire Tim (Jordan Kouame) and beta-male David (Matthew Leigh) is very well observed. We’ve all had that friend who has taken advantage of our good nature, but we can’t quite get rid of. Even if they have pushed you to the brink, it’s just not the done thing to sling someone out on the street on Christmas Day. Unless they’ve done something really terrible – sadly for David, Tim not paying rent and spending his days making up an incomprehensible boardgame (rather than looking for a job) isn’t awful enough to warrant evicting him. There is some subtle tragi-comedy at play and some brilliant sight gags as Tim tries to squirrel away items of David’s shopping.
But then we lurch into an inexplicable (and failed) attempt at farce as the hapless pair fall victim to a couple of bungling scam artists – the chameleon-esque Clive (James Unsworth) and the seductive Mary (Alice Coles). We’re never quite sure whose side we’re meant to be on. Tim and David aren’t loveable enough for us to feel sorry for them, and Clive and Mary are a bit too superficial and inept for us to hope they’ll get away with it. A hostage situation throws up an opportunity for some really dark humour or menace – instead, I found myself asking why David doesn’t just call the police (it’s not as if he has anything to hide from them). There is a real Shaun of the Dead moment as the resourceful Mary holds them to ransom with a potato-peeler.
Aside from the fact that this is such a swerve away from the low-key opening, most of the jokes lack a lot of set-up and follow through. Well executed farce is all in the anticipation and it takes time to construct the required tension. It should wind itself up like a watch spring, then unravel in a satisfying jumble of mistaken identities, close shaves, lies, counter-lies and people having to hide in cupboards. Instead, the gags in this play untangle themselves far too quickly and easily to elicit much (if any) laughter. You need to build a precarious house of cards before you let it fall, not lean two cards against each other and flick them over. The script would’ve benefited from using fewer plot devices and milking the best ones for all they’re worth. It either needs to be totally plausible or totally ludicrous. This falls through the gap between.
Comi-tragedy? Tragi-farce? It’s occasionally funny, but there’s no real sense of cohesion to the style or the plot. Most of the time it just sags. Perhaps the ideas contained would’ve worked better as two (or three?) separate plays. Of the hour, I spent 45 minutes willing it to end. More miss than hit.
This Is Not A Christmas Play is on until Sunday 4th January 2015 at the Top Secret Comedy Club, 170a Drury Lane, London, WC2B 5PD. For tickets and more information go to http://www.encompassproductions.co.uk/this-is-not-a-christmas-play/4587188236