Phil Morris ponders Dirty Protest’s Last Christmas at Porters, Cardiff; written by Matthew Bulgo and directed by Kate Wasserberg.
The best Christmas stories, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, are those of redemption and renewal, and Matt Bulgo’s one-man play Last Christmas is a modest though honourable member of that great tradition. Sion Pritchard plays Tom, a desperate, lower-management everyman figure who is barely able to repress his petty workplace frustrations, and pain at his troubled marriage, through a combination of heavy sarcasm and cheap booze. His wife Nat is expecting their first child but the happy news has failed to put him in the festive spirit. A strength of Bulgo’s writing is its attention to detail, with the tension of this failing relationship conveyed tellingly by a kiss on Tom’s cheek that lands awkwardly not on his lips or his cheek ‘but somewhere in between’.
Enforced seasonal jollity casts Tom’s unhappiness into sharp relief, and the script crackles with well-observed one-liners on a joyless office party organised by Suse – an annoying middle-management wannabe whose ambition contrasts with that of our rather hapless protagonist. The tone of the play grows more sombre, however, in the second half of its 60-minute running time, when Tom returns from London to his hometown of Swansea. He meets up with some old school buddies and we appear set for set for some more anti-yuletide satire, but this increasingly drunken reunion opens up Tom’s deep underlying grief at the death of his father sometime during the previous Christmas.
Bulgo shrewdly avoids the cheap melodramatics of a son returning home to confront family secrets clichéd narrative, at the heart of his play is an affecting examination of the coruscating, hollowing-out process of bereavement. Tom’s deep sadness results from the immense gratitude he feels for his father’s unconditional love, which contextualises both his emotional distance from his wife and mean-spirited attitude to his colleagues.
Pritchard’s performance is notable for its precision and restraint, with an accumulation of small details he renders a compelling portrait of a somewhat ordinary man going through an extraordinary welter of complex emotions. When Tom finally breaks down, Pritchard doesn’t attempt to drown his audience in copious, runny-nose inducing tears but chokes them back instead, and the effect is to move us rather than draw attention to his ability to weep on stage. Both script and actor lead us to a cathartic climax of clear-eyed self-realisation, as Tom comes to terms both with the loss of his father and consequently his own impending fatherhood,
It must be said that Last Christmas is very much a game of two halves. Whereas its first thirty minutes has its funny moments, and Matthew Bulgo’s powers of observation are always acute, there is something familiar about its swipes at office politics and the naff tropes of our modern Christmas festivities. The second half hour of the play, however, blends tender humour and pathos with impressive nuance and insight to create a bitter-sweet story that celebrates the enduring power of inter-generational filial love without sentimentality. Although much of the early material lays the foundation for what comes later, modelled perhaps on the template of Alan Bennett’s celebrated Talking Heads, Matthew Bulgo’s comic writing is not as surprising nor as startling as his later examination of the psychological dynamics of grief and family relationships.
The production by Kate Wasserberg is determinedly no-frills – a solitary chain of fairy lights fringed around Porter’s tiny proscenium arch stage being the sole concession to having a set. Again, the value here is that of restraint, as this simplicity in staging places due focus on Pritchard, who has performed Last Christmas off and on for about two years now – and it shows in a richly textured performance of deep humanity. Dirty Protest are a company who clearly appreciate that the best new plays require both talented actors and directors who generously serve the text. Last Christmas was a notable success in Edinburgh earlier this year, following on from Dirty Protest’s acclaimed production of Kath Chandler’s Parallel Lines in 2013. It is therefore something of a scandal that, in spite of the company’s additional endeavours to develop play writing in Wales, Dirty Protest is not a revenue-funded and does its valuable work on behalf of the new playwrights of Wales funded on a project to project basis.
Last Christmas will be performed at the Torch Theatre, Milford Haven on Friday 5 December, before a short run at the Soho Theatre, London, 9 – 21 December.