The very idea of trying to create an original Christmas story seems like an impossibility: surely every festive trope and possible cliché has been exhausted by now. Or so I thought, until I saw Soho Theatre’s alternative seasonal show The Night Before Christmas. Gary (Navin Chowdhry) is spending Christmas Eve working the night shift in a warehouse, sorting out boxes filled with counterfeit goods. Gary’s self-pity and wallowing is interrupted by the sound of an intruder breaking in – naturally he goes to investigate, but is quite taken aback to discover that the trespasser is in fact an overgrown, dishevelled-looking Elf (Craig Gazey). Bewildered and confused as to whether to believe this mysterious man’s claims – that he is a real Elf that has just fallen off Santa’s sleigh – Gary decides to tie him to a chair and call his Scouse friend Simon (Craig Kelly) for a second opinion. Simon bluntly dismisses the so-called Elf’s story as poppycock, and thinks that he is nothing more than a chancer. Is he a burglar or an Elf? Trying to uncover this supposed Elf’s true identity is the ongoing debate that lies at the heart of this unconventional festive tale.
Very little happens in the first half of the play: it is essentially just Simon, Gary and the Elf in the warehouse, debating whether or not to call the police on Gazey’s character. It’s quite a cyclical argument with all parties firmly standing their ground. However, what holds the whole piece together and prevents tedium setting in is the presence of the Elf. Even before he opens his mouth his expressive winces and grimaces are utterly compelling to watch. Going against every adjective that you would ever associate with an Elf, Gazey’s slow, drawn-out and deadpan delivery is utterly inimitable.
The show is based on a book of the same name by Anthony Neilson, and the author has joined forces with Steve Marmion to co-write lyrics and adapt his text into a musical. It feels more fitting to refer to The Night Before Christmas as an anti-musical, as it openly pokes fun at many components used in conventional musical theatre. One technique that repeatedly comes under fire is the current trend of speak-singing (think Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean during any of the songs from the recent film version of Les Misérables). Witty and topical lyrics coupled with exaggerated speak-singing prove to be a very humorous combination. That said, many of extended monologue style songs, albeit funny, are overused. This results in the songs being hard to distinguish from one another and, for me, they slightly merge into one. My favourite musical number has to be the extremely catchy rap ‘Back To The Box’, performed by the brilliant Gazey, exploring the idea that children are often more interested in the cardboard box than the present itself.
For a play that starts out with the cynical view that Christmas is nothing more than a con and a commercialised holiday, it surprised me by taking an unexpected turn. Let’s just say wishes are granted, and even the most jaded of adults begin to believe that Christmas can be a magical time of year after all.
The Night Before Christmas is playing at Soho Theatre until 5 January. For tickets and more information, see the Soho Theatre website.