The account of the awful family Christmas has become a cultural staple – to be heard in every office, school and cafe in the land – so to really make an impact you either have to tell it really well, or make the tales really extreme.
With The Super Slash Naughty XXXmas Story at Wilton’s Music Hall in East London, Russell Barr has gone for the second option. I’m not going to tell the worst of them, for you might be eating, and they are certainly enough to turn any stomach. Audience reaction was distinctive – the nervous guffaw, followed by the sharply indrawn breath that says: “Really, they’re not … Oh my God, they are.”
Which is a bit of a pity, since behind the stunts is a rather fine, well-drawn comedy. The gay nephew Doddie (played by Barr), has been forced to come home for Christmas with his utterly un-PC, weird and self-centred Aunt Shona. (She’s wonderfully played by Joanna Scanlan, and it is worth the price of the ticket just to see her performance.) Also in the party is the Delia Smith-quoting child Alistair, beautifully hammed up, in the best possible sense, by Lisa Hammond.
They’re in the old family home, occupied by the equally weird if more withdrawn Uncle Douglas (Michael Nardonne), and a flock of fox terriers. (Happily contained on multiple television screens.) This is the first Christmas since the death of their mother, and so the great family tradition of enacting out the nativity has to be recreated. One of the terriers is due to whelp, and Aunt Shona has it in mind for a vital part in the play.
High above the family living room is a single chorister, Denise Leigh – you might recognise the name from Channel Four’s Operatunity. She delivers all the usual Christmas classics in fine, ethereal style, punctuating and commenting on the action below. And this is where the qualities of Wilton’s Music Hall – you might recall it from the BBC’s Restoration programme – really shine, for the acoustics are perfect.
You are reminded that 150 years ago, stars from the Royal Opera House used to whip across London to perform late-night arias here. Shut your eyes, and you could almost be transported back. The building is just as stunning as it is on the screen, if still almost as dilapidated – but its mere survival deserves to be celebrated, and Leigh’s voice does just that.
Below her, however, Aunt Shona is repeating every derogatory, nasty term applied by race, sexuality and creed. Yes we’ve all get relatives like that, but it is cheap shock tactics for her to keep coming out with them in line after line.
Other jokes are more familiar – there’s the stolen turkey (from a city petting zone), which of course ends up charred to a cinder, the lousy presents, the bad jokes. Alastair comes out, allegedly from his Christmas cracker, with: “What’s pink and fluffy and doesn’t move? … Barbara Cartland’s cunt.” (If you found that line shocking, this show is not for you.)
The characters despite all of this, however, are far more than stereotypes, and their relationships develop and grow – given a chance they could really flower. But then along comes the next shock tactic to break into the story.
This is still fun December entertainment, however. And if your January office sport is competitive telling of Christmas horror stories, this show will give you plenty of material to work with.
The Super Slash Naughty XXXmas Story continues until December 31. Tickets from £5-£20. The theatre says: “Airline Style booking on a first come first serve basis, the earlier you book the cheaper they are…”
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