The maverick theatre group Duckie was behind the summer’s mass sleepover, in which it had dozens of audience members tucked up in the Barbican Theatre overnight. It could perhaps have combined that idea with the festive season and doled out Christmas stockings full of entertainment. But instead it has head off in a completely different direction, with a barbed and glittery attack on the rampant consumerism and tacky excess that accompanies the modern experience of Christmas.
Copyright Christmas sends the audience members, in groups, on a promenade around a soulless warehouse superstore, packed with stalls selling goods and promising personalised offers of eternal youth, happiness, self-respect and the like. It’s a great idea, targeting the cynicism of modern marketing and the restless consumption of the developed world. And director Mark Whitelaw and designer Robin Whitmore have put plenty of energy, wit and industry into creating and designing the show. But the rather flimsy, underwritten content of the individual scenes means that it doesn’t have the bite that it could.
We start off all together, with the larger-than-life store manager, Carol, welcoming us and introducing a couple of fading celebrities to spice up the occasion. Then we are shepherded in our separate groups, past stacks of cardboard boxes of flat-packed furniture marked “Shöddi”, “Slöppi” and “Slåppdash” to encounter the various stalls. In one, we become the makeshift audience for a ghastly shopping channel; in another, a gaudily dressed saleswoman invites us to buy our dream job; in a third, a frantic elf does gymnastics to illustrate the flexibility of the ELF (Ethically Limited Finance) store-card. There’s a macabre Santa’s grotto and, most bizarrely, a scene inside a plastic shopping bag: it’s the first time, to my knowledge, that I’ve been insulted by a tomato.
The show catches perfectly the incessant noise, overkill and false jollity that characterise the most joyless shopping expeditions and gradually becomes increasingly sinister. Audience members shuffle round and queue up, entering into the spirit of proceedings. But though it is entertainingly delivered, the writing in many of the scenes is not sharp enough and the through-line not clear enough to drive the ideas home. Even the finale, in which Carol ascends heavenwards in some wild and gaudy apotheosis, promises slightly more than it delivers. An enjoyable and original idea that, like many a Christmas gift, doesn’t quite go the distance.