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Thirty Christmases review

| Comedy, Music, Theatre | 15/12/2017

30 CHRISTMASES - Production Image (3), image by Josh Tomalin

Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer and Reviewer

A marvellous musical comedy that manages to turn family trauma into heart-warming festive fare.

The story of a brother and sister trying to come to terms with a traumatic event may not sound like the most promising basis for a feelgood Christmas production, but few shows have quite so much festive soul as Thirty Christmases.

Part of that stems from the acting on display, with Jonny Donahoe, Rachel Parris and Paddy Gervers comfortably translating the warmth and humour of their comedy onto the stage.  But it’s mainly in the writing, with Donahoe managing to merge a cynical deconstruction of this objectively absurd annual event with sufficient affection and positivity about the human spirit.

The play plots the lives of Jonny (Donahoe) and Rachel (Parris), before and after their father walked out on them on Christmas Day 17 years ago.  The Christmases before that fondly expose their father’s strange ways (nomadic tendencies, mid-level alcoholism, extreme socialism) and manifested rituals (varying locations, experimental mixology, gifting a brick to one child and generous presents to the other), whereas those after deal with their consequences: years spent in care, inherited behaviours and a subsequent sibling rift.

Consequentially, the first half provides most of the comedy, principally through hilarious foot-stomping tunes and fourth wall-breaking Christmas cynicism, which play perfectly to the cast’s strengths.  Parris pushes the boundaries of I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus in the superb Reindeer Sex, while Donahoe and Gervers channel their comedy band Jonny and the Baptists brilliantly in Ring the Bells, I’m Shitted; their Band Aid pastiche is more predictable, but good fun nonetheless.  Amusing observations and audience inclusions add to the fun, along with an excellent turn from Gervers – hitherto an unknown acting quantity – voicing the father and, later, the siblings’ best friend.

The second half is heavier but more memorable, as Jonny becomes an enthusiastic apologist for their father in the face of Rachel’s understandable anger at the paternal abandonment.  “Why can’t you remember any of the good memories without going straight to the bad?”  Jonny despairs.  One answer lies in hardwiring; another is that it forms a neat narrative trick, analysing the past through both warm gazes and cold stares.

Eventually, these differing viewpoints become too severe, pulling the pair apart in a desperately sad way that completes Jonny’s metamorphosis into his sulking and heavy-drinking father.  After 10 wasted years apart, the siblings finally reconcile at Christmas – “for all its faults, a good time to sort shit out” – through an exchange of bricks that’s genuinely moving and says a lot about newly formed adult relationships.

In our interview last month, Donahoe explained that: “If [Christmas] resonates of loss, grief or even guilt, you can’t escape that.  And it’s compounded by the fact that everywhere you go people are signposting that they’re having a joyous time.”  But ultimately Thirty Christmases isn’t about grief drowning out the tinselly schmaltz of other people’s Christmases.  It’s about choosing to allow love and comforting rituals to distract from those emotions, if only for a day.

Thirty Christmases is being performed at New Diorama Theatre until 23rd December.  Get your tickets here.

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