Big Loop Theatre Company are the guardians of The Other Room’s ‘festive’ show this year, in what has become Welsh theatre’s answer to Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message. Rather than take things into outrageous territory (as in previous years), Big Loop have instead crafted a darkly comic and politically charged dystopian two-hander. Cheer has the kind of premise that wouldn’t be out of place in a Charlie Brooker venture, not only for its cynical view of the future but also for what it says about us today.
In writer Kitty Hughes’ dystopia Christmas has become a commercial commodity reserved only for the ones that can afford it. Those who can possess official government licenses, and those who can’t use a drug called CHEER to synthesise the festive feeling. It’s in this world, on one December evening, that Todd and Jules find themselves trapped in an office. She is an illegal license-dealer; he desperately wants a license; and things inevitably go out of control.
Going totally against the precedent set by devised pieces Flowers and Flours, Big Loop instead opt for a text-based, narrative-driven play. Hughes has written a very smart script, clever in its parodying of contemporary classism. While she has a strong grasp of the satire, the nuts and bolts are sometimes unpolished. Her best jokes are the ones made in passing, while those she builds to feel too contrived at times. Perhaps it’s because they’re all part of the company, but Hughes’ biggest strength is her character development. Even though they’re at odds throughout the piece, the audience are always rooting for both Todd and Jules to succeed.
This is why Alice Downing and Cory Tucker are so well-suited to their roles. Both characters are imbued with a nervous energy that’s heightened by the natural chemistry between the two performers. Both Downing and Tucker are likable stage personalities, so the characters end up both amusing and endearing. Duncan Hallis’ direction is also crucial here. The eccentricities of the Christmas motif could easily have gone further and off the rails, but Hallis stops that happening by staying true to the script’s dark and often depraved tone. The final few sequences of the play could be genuinely distressing for some people, and Hallis doesn’t play it for laughs at all. It’s brave and it works.
It’s in the design where he gets to have more fun. Ceci Calf’s set is built like a Christmas present, slowly being unwrapped for the enthralled audience. Garrin Clarke does a solid job of using the lights to create the warm fuzziness of Christmas, before plunging the stage in reds and greens when things go momentarily off-kilter. Matthew Holmquist’s sound isn’t quite as erratic, sticking to a subtly seasonal score throughout. The effect is one of unrest – in happier moments its lovely, but the twinkling music is unsettling when things aren’t so happy.
Cheer isn’t as polished as other December shows that have graced The Other Room. What it does have is the rawness you should expect from a company that is still growing. If you’ve followed the trajectory of Big Loop, you’ll see the massive strides that have been made with this production. Big Loop Theatre Company have stepped up in a big way, and Cheer is symptomatic of that growth. Dark, funny, very relevant and very watchable.
Cheer is on at The Other Room in Cardiff until December 15th