Friday, 21 December 2012

A Thornton Wilder Christmas - review

Written by: Ed Theakston (@EdTheakston)

King's Head Theatre, London

This Christmas, Savio(u)r theatre company in association with the King’s Head present A Thornton Wilder Christmas, a double bill of one-act plays The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner. Both one-act plays, written in 1931, last thirty minutes and this is the first time Thornton Wilder’s work has been performed in London for nearly a decade.

Both of Wilder’s plays focus heavily on family, and there seems to be a common theme of change. The first of the evening, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, is set in the motorcar of a family driving to visit the eldest sister. It is a snapshot of a bygone era where taking a drive is an occasion and an opportunity for the family to talk, for lessons to be learned and for songs to be sung. As is often found in Wilder’s work, the play elevates the unremarkable daily conversations of ordinary people to universal human experience, and along the short car journey the family are confronted by birth, death, religion, the temptations of consumerism, and the limits of familial love.

The second play of the evening, The Long Christmas Dinner, represents an incredibly interesting innovation in theatrical convention. Wilder plays with time, as a single Christmas dinner covers more than fifty years; a baby’s birth is mentioned and a matter of minutes later the same young adult sits down at the table for dinner, a couple are courting and the next moment they are married, an elderly cousin arrives and the next moment departs the table for good. Four generations are seen having Christmas dinner at the same table, as the external world and the internal family dynamics undergo huge shifts and the young characters’ impatience and dissatisfaction with old ideals grows.

Wilder’s plays seem concerned with theatrical convention in many ways. Writing in the thirties, when America’s various proponents or realism were becoming dominant, Wilder’s plays represent a rejection of these ideas. Both plays are presented on a near bare stage, where paint pots and old stage lights are abandoned as if the theatre were dark. There is an onstage ‘stage manager’ in The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, who visibly changes the set and even occasionally reads in for extra characters. The characters multi-role throughout The Long Christmas Dinner and the characterisation is, although not always entirely convincing, aptly pitched and the aging process depicted by many of the actors – the gradual slump, the slowing down – is well played. Their departures from the table represent their deaths and there are some lovely, simple directorial touches. Stephanie Beattie as Ma in the first, and Carole Street as a cousin and great-grandmother in the second give stand out performances.

Director Tim Sullivan has done these short plays justice. There is the perfect balance of comedy, melancholy and tenderness that make it perfect for the time of year. Although the first feels a little cautious and as such doesn’t quite hit the audience as hard as it could, Sullivan brings out all the nuances and contemporary echoes in the second, making it incredibly moving. 

This production runs until 5 January 2013. 
@KingsHeadThtr @SaviourTheatre

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