The King’s Head was the first pub theatre to be founded in England since the time of Shakespeare, and has opened its doors to a wide range of emerging talent, including Steven Berkoff and Andrew Davies, over the last 42 years. This Christmas sees theatre company Savio(u)r working in association with The King’s Head to produce A Thornton Wilder Christmas, a double bill of The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner. Both are one-act plays of 30 minutes, written in 1931.
When the playwright is a three time Pulizter Prize winner, you know you’re in for a good night. Savio(u)r has gone for the basic approach – it has not attempted to radicalise or update the texts, but has chosen to simply perform them, as they were written, in 1930s costume. The effect is a very warm, very touching evening, full of charm and humour.
The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden takes place inside the motorcar of a family driving to visit the eldest sister. The conversation consists of commenting on landmarks and signboards they pass, disciplining the children, observing the changing nature around them, and talking about themselves. The Long Christmas Dinner depicts 90 Christmas dinners in accelerated time round the table of the Bayard family. We see the development of the countryside and the changes in customs, manners and the family themselves, and watch a large slice of old world American life creeping towards modernity. It is a tremendous piece of writing.
The actors multi-role throughout both plays, displaying great physicality. The acting is highly visual and excellently performed – from simulating car travel, with every pothole and turn made manifest in the bodies of the travellers, to the process of ageing at the Bayard dinner table – the slumping of postures, the trembling of hands, the general slowing down of the characters as they move from youth to age, abandon the table and return as new family members in a smooth cycle.
Both plays focus on family, ordinary people going about their unremarkable lives. In his writing, Wilder aimed to raise daily conversation to the level of the universal human experience, and he certainly does this in these two shorts. The rising impatience of youth in The Long Christmas Dinner, dissatisfied with old ideals and feeling that time is standing still while generations come and go, is very moving.
The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden truly represents a bygone era. The kids aren’t in the back absorbed in electrical appliances, the parents aren’t in the front arguing about the sat nav’s capabilities. Here, a journey means time for discussion, observation, singing, and lessons. The character of Ma, who stresses the importance of family and God and good manners, is wonderfuly performed by Stephanie Beattie. Beattie and Carole Street, who appears in The Long Christmas Dinner as a cousin and great-grandmother, are the two stand out performers for me, emanating an old world simplicity and goodness that made me nostalgic for a time I never knew.
This is a very touching double bill, superbly written and performed, giving a mix of humour, nostalgic sadness and family that is perfect for this time of year, and performed in a lovely, cosy venue with an open fire. So catch A Thornton Wilder Christmas – it won’t be around forever.
A Thornton Wilder Christmas is playing at the Kings Head Theatre until 5 January 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Kings Head Theatre website.