Just when you think there’s nothing left to do with the hackneyed tropes of the Christmas story, along comes a sly little fable like this - and you start to believe again. Writers Anthony Neilson and Steve Marmion have achieved something remarkable with this sweary musical-comedy that is grubby and morose throughout yet full of genuine heart and never, ever cheesy.
Gary (Navin Chowdhry) is working the night-shift in a warehouse on Christmas Eve when he hears a clatter outside. By the time his crotchety pal Simon (Craig Kelly) arrives for their seasonal spliff together, Gary has tied up a quivering creature that looks like a scally burglar though claims to be an elf who’s fallen off Santa’s sleigh (Craig Gazey).
This simple set-up proves to be a rich source of humour and also a jumping-off point for all manner of light ruminations about magic, friendship, ethics and commerce – the core elements of Christmas in fact. The unfolding story is fresh and hard to second-guess, especially after the three-hander switches dynamics with the arrival of stroppy prostitute Cherry (Rebecca Atkinson). All four actors are excellent – funny, real and affecting. They smartly dodge caricaturing these unlucky people, which is no mean feat considering the short running time.
Static and talky though the show may be it’s so tightly-scripted it never once sags, while the stealthily-integrated songs by Tom Mills continually surprise and delight. Hopefully, it will become a seasonal fixture in Soho so the slightly less successful jokes and songs have a chance to get polished or replaced (Cherry’s entrance music was distractingly choppy and the joke about a Russian gymnast felt overly written).
With a bit of fine-tuning this has the potential to become a minor classic. But if we had one wish, they’d change the name next time – “The Nightshift before Christmas” perhaps?
The Night Before Christmas is on at the Soho Theatre until 5 January 2014.
Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.