To raucous cries of “I love Sue”, a stereotypical Sunday school teacher enters a homely set embellished with tinsel, kitsch decorations and Christian iconography. Immediately, our unlikely heroine’s less-than-subtle fan club is abruptly halted by a sharp “shh”, as Dafydd James’s prim alter-ego takes her place at the piano and launches into her seasonal follow-up to the 2009 cult musical hit My Name is Sue.
With her fringe freshly home-clipped, and a familiar frumpy style adorned by the kind of cardigan that not even Save the Children’s Christmas Jumper Day campaign could excuse, shy disciplinarian Sue warms up the audience for her very own nativity play. Accompanied by three mardy musicians, all wearing red jumpers, badly cut wigs and frowns – and, curiously, all called Sue – James’s character delivers lyrics of deceptive simplicity in a neatly-whisked falsetto.
A one-hour comedy piece centred on what happens nine months after you get knocked up in a Debenhams changing room won’t be the first place you’d look for a settling balance of warmth, humour and winter goodwill. Fortunately, there’s an incredible sense of discipline in this work by Dafydd James and Ben Lewis. While there’s something deliberately flat about Sue’s lyrical contribution – “I’ve polished my baubles / So [. . .] listen to my warbles”, she trills – lead performer James layers this innocence with know-how and control. On the piano, James is a veritable jukebox, powering through the Christmas hits faster than a frostbitten choir eager to get out of the cold. While Sue’s eager, smiling face is the very picture of credulity, Lewis and James’s script bears a magnificence that clashes the Yuletide idealism of our central character with the dreary banality of real life.
Like the child that inadvertently provokes laughter by spilling embarrassing home truths, Sue’s humour lies in how she seems as surprised by the nature of her revelations as her audience. Sue: The Second Coming may be conducted in a bleating falsetto but, despite her easily-imitated style (there are reports a whole front row has come dressed in wigs and jumpers ripped straight out of Sue’s closet), there’s a real truth in the character of Sue, who is a surprisingly complex being. Exhibiting unfaltering naivety, Sue sways between vulnerability and creepiness, and is someone both to worry for and worry about. There’s a foreboding undercurrent here, and the production is darker and cannier than its surface simplicity suggests.
As Sue skips around stage assembling cocktails from Advocaat, eagerly switching on fairy lights and inviting audience members to join her in an idiosyncratic take on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, a sparkling sense of seasonal jollity is prevalent. But Sue: The Second Coming is also the theatrical Rennie to all your seasonal overindulgence, as James and Lewis’s keen eyes focus upon a more realist take on familiar narratives – for instance, as Sue follows the footsteps of Scrooge through Christmases past, present and future, the passing of time is casually indicated by the expansions and contractions of the giraffe-shaped damp patch on the wall.
Christmas can be a time of good cheer and song but, in Sue’s world, it can also be a time spent navigating the public expulsions of bodily waste, running to the Christmas tree in order to unwrap a chicken vindaloo ready-meal for one, and lamenting the life of the manky goat who is destined to lurk around biblical mangers until she is sold into the feta trade. Armed by Sue’s tainted innocence and the writers’ astute observations, Sue: The Second Coming manages to navigate the season by riffing on our ability to sentimentalise, while never falling into sentimentality.
Sue: The Second Coming is playing at Soho Theatre until 14 December. For more information and tickets, see The Soho Theatre website