Christmas, White Bear Theatre – Review

Christmas with William Ely Billy Lee Russell (builders jacket) - Ralph Aiken
Ralph Aiken & William Ely in Christmas. Images Kim Hardy Photography.

I spent a lot of years working in pubs and my favourite customers were always ‘the regulars’.

The people who turned up at the same time every day, drank the same thing, sat in the same place. They were nearly always alone.

There’s nothing wrong with going to the pub alone, of course. I’ve never understood the view that it’s maybe a bit weird.

I met some incredible characters: compulsive liars, people who lived in cars, the deeply disturbed teacher who’d have two glasses of wine on her lunch break and tell me about her friends. Her friends turned out to be cats, but it took me a whole year to realise.

Sometimes you wondered whether you were the only person that customer had talked to all day.

Some poured their hearts out, but I really liked the quieter, mysterious, ones. You could make up your own stories about them.

Simon Stephens’ Christmas – a play set in a pub, a week before Christmas, performed in Kennington’s White Bear Theatre at the back of a pub, a few weeks before Christmas – took me right back to those winter nights behind the bar, dispersing pints, friendship and therapy.

The White Bear’s back room holds about 40 and on a cold Thursday night there were only 10 bums on seats.

It was a shame for the actors – although they still put everything into this performance – but strangely fitting for a play about four such lonely men.

Landlord Michael (William Ely by turns wonderfully subtle then intensely manic) is on the verge of a breakdown.

He hides it at first in light-hearted banter but is only ever a millisecond away from exploding.

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His first customer of the night is Billy-Lee (Ralph Aiken), a 29-year-old labourer escaping for the night from the house he shares with his miserable pot-smoking mother.

Billy’s fowl-mouthed views on life and the East End’s gentrification are amusing.

“I’ve never seen so many c**ting sandwich shops in one place,” he spits out. But it’s refreshing that Stephens doesn’t take the easy route of just using Billy’s dimness for comedic effect.

He’s volatile and confused. In Billy you see a whole generation of young men angry that their life isn’t anything like what they thought it would be.

Billy’s never left London. Should the pub survive, he’ll still be sitting on that bar stool in 30 years, still drinking Guinness, still angry and bitter and confused about everything.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a performance as memorable as James Groom’s staring, grinning, over-familiar, tongue rolling Charlie Anderson, a cello-case carrying loner on a pub crawl after a win on the horses.

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He’s so completely psychotic, I was convinced for at least half an hour that we were going to find a body instead of an instrument in the case.

Stage veteran Lionel Guyett’s elderly Italian barber Zeppo is a counter to Billy’s angry young man.

His business and health are failing and he’s in agony over the death of his wife of 40 years, but Zeppo declares life to be “a sad and beautiful thing”.

In a world that’s changed around him so much, he holds on to the tiniest pleasures. To memories of women with nice teeth. To a shot, or five, of Drambuie. To Christmas.

Christmas first played ten years ago, and in 2014, all that dates it is the smoking and the ludicrously cheap cost of a half (98p!).

In another ten years, when even more community pubs have been replaced by themed cocktail bars and artisan delis, staffed by an ever-changing roster of rushed baristas, will we still have somewhere to go for companionship or escape?

Michael Kingsbury’s direction of Christmas is wonderfully balanced, with enough jokes and surreally amusing cameos to counter what could have been a completely overwhelming sadness.

It’s a reminder never to judge a man on first impressions – particularly when he’s had a few drinks. Above all, it’s an ode to the tradition of the great British boozer.

Christmas runs until December 21.

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