For many, the festive season is a flash & fizz of friends and family, a convivial banquet of feast and drink. As this sobering one-act by Steven Berkoff reminds us, for an equal number Christmastime may be an event fuelled by agony and sadness.

This work is a cri de coeur for the bereft and broken-hearted. For those without support from loved ones. For the innately introverted and the social misfits who struggle to fit in. Staged by Threedumb Theatre in aid of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a charity dedicated to the prevention of suicide, Berkoff pleads for an audience not to forget the forsaken. And so we spare a thought for the predicament of the title character of Harry, desperately alone at the buildup to the holiday. As the audience arrives, he is busy on stage, engaged in decorating his tree and assembling his cards on a cord along the wall.

In an impressively modulated performance, Stephen Smith takes the audience on a whirlwind, perilous journey from chirpy, cheerful, and coping, to something quite a bit darker and more destructive. The meagre six cards he has arranged with extravagant spatial strategy mock and destabilise his sense of worth and value. They come courtesy of family and tangential friends, so do not hold much pedigree. He nervously tops the selection up with cards from previous years, then immediately takes them down. He is a mass of conflicted feeling. Frantically, he attempts to convince himself that he is in no way bothered by the lack of significant communication. His only companion is a niggling voice of doubt, unhelpful and bullying in its insistence. The holiday is an “avalanche” that is heading his way. He agonises over contacting ex-girlfriends and old colleagues, fantasises inviting them over for cocktails and chat. The two calls Harry does make are debacles. Interrupting a children’s birthday party, Harry has to embarrassingly explain who he is to a former co-worker who eventually hands the phone over to his child before hanging up. The call to a former girlfriend calls into question Harry’s heretofore sweet and shy character, hinting at more troubling personal facets. Through his increasingly defensive response, we sense that the former girlfriend had an entirely different take on their relationship, mentioning continuous disagreements and fights. Harry argues he has not sought nor ever needed therapy or medical assistance, and exits the conversation with mean-spirited venom.

Abrupt, startling blackouts signal the inky transition between days. The plunge into darkness is held for an uncomfortably queasy length, the audience prepared for some terrible catastrophe to unfold. As he progressively plods towards Christmas Day, Harry’s initial lightheartedness has worn down to an ornery, bitter edge, an embrace of fatalism. He seems battered and exhausted, his resolve has slipped. Desolation has taken up toxic residence. He is ready for the next stage. The climax is a bravely elongated, fevered exit, Harry off on a fuzzy fugue of drug-induced vision. In this state he has found peace, unburdened of pain. Technical aspects greatly assist in suggesting a drain of vitality. A string of twinkly Christmas lights from above subtly, incrementally extinguishing. A circle of light tightening around Harry’s body like a noose. The soft Christmas songs on the radio slowing to distortion. A world of overbearing sensation in retreat. 

Originally produced in 1985, the ascent of social media and its immediate, mass influence has only accelerated the conditions which may give rise to self-harm. The perceived paucity of some individual’s lives in relation to the exaggerated, filtered artifice of online lives has only exacerbated the sense of not measuring up, of falling short in comparison. The noise is possibly even more deafening and inescapable now.

I only wish more had been made of Harry’s brother, mentioned once near the beginning than not referenced again. A line of dialogue to explain he may be estranged or at a great distance so that the audience understands why he is not a presence at the holiday or in his brother’s life. And Harry’s cat remains elusive, not offering any comfort or succour to his human (is the feline wary of the rapidly disintegrating soul, sensing it is too late to intervene?). The questions dangle a bit frustratingly. 

An anti-festive gift, this is a responsible and respectful study of a person in crisis. For Harry, there will be no Christmas miracle. There will not be a last-minute visit or call that will act as salvation. The phone indeed rings, but in this world it is most likely a bill collector inappropriately intruding on a holiday. But we must bear witness. It deeply shakes the undermining insecurities and uncertainties with which we are all familiar.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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