Review by Sam Waite
It's Christmas time, and that means copious amounts of wine and borderline-gluttonous amounts of food. For many, it also means the horrors of preparing a delicious meal for an ever-expanding family and trying to match all their various dislikes, allergies and new diets. For our festive pleasure, Coupla Carols and the Lark Theatre offer up 21 Round For Christmas, giving us a glimpse into the minds of mums across the nation, who just want to drink their wine in peace and really, really would rather you just leave them to it!
Tracy Sullivan is adjacent to the family gathering rather than a part of it, sequestered in the kitchen prepping the turkey, the ham, the gravy, the veg, and a foul smelling tart her mother-in-law brought as the vegan main. Admitting on the phone to “talking to the walls”, she treats the audience to some songs, some monologuing and some captivating stories about times past and how she came to be a part of the Sullivan family. Stressed beyond belief and missing the only person she really wants to see this Christmas, this may finally be the year that Tracy snaps.
Toby Hampton and Matthew Ballantyne have captured Tracy’s voice marvellously – the common-as-muck everywoman who loves a good whinge but does her very best to keep the peace at these family gatherings. Her monologues are snappy, easy to follow along with l, and sound like exactly what would be going through someone’s frazzled head while they try to make light of just how on the verge of a breakdown they are. Also perfectly paced, the 70 minute show flies by and leaves no room for the mind to wander or the constant, frantic energy to dissipate.
Hampton pulls double duty as director, keeping the character in motion and keeping the fourth wall’s presence in check – Tracy will make asides to her audience, and even speak directly to those up front, but she's just as often talking to herself, or perhaps imagining the stories she could be telling her children or a younger version of herself. With this in mind, Hampton pushes his star, Cathy Conneff, towards absurd over-acting in one moment and into rich, naturalistic delivery the next, with both Conneff and Hampton excelling at this careful balancing act.
Conneff’s performance is sensational, bringing a real sense of frustration to Tracy's darting back and forth to find one thing or another in her kitchen. A gifted and natural comedian, her willingness to make an utter fool of herself is essential to just how likeable Tracy becomes, even with the mistakes she's made and the people she's hurt along the way. As the play’s backstory deepens, Conneff proves to be just as remarkable a dramatic performer, bringing real weight to long-held sorrows and a palpable chemistry with a friend whose voice we never even hear, with her appearing only in stories or on the other end of a phone call. Outside of bringing her audience to the edge of tears, the crowning achievement of her performance is a one-sided duet over the phone, possibly the only performance of ‘Fairytale of New York’ I've ever enjoyed. (Don't come for me!)
Alex Forey and Emily Rose Simons, behind the lighting and sound respectively, seem at first to have little to do but prove to be essential to the tonal and comedic shifts. Changes to turn the cluttered, hyper-real kitchen set into a phony psychic's office, a wrestling ring, and a posh downtown bar, are all achieved through changes to the colour and strength of background lighting, and the 21 guests are brought to life through incidental sounds and snippets of speech from offstage. Couple with just how real the kitchen seems, cobbled together with astonishing realism by Hampton and Laurel Marks, these touches really help to bring us into Tracy’s world.
Funny, surprisingly fresh, and more than willing to dig into the real pain that hides underneath everyday moaning about the hardships of feeding the family, 21 Round For Christmas finds its star and creators in fine form. Matching strong statements with powerful punchlines, this is a festive comedy that's willing to stray from the season while maintaining its relevance to Tracy’s stress – not always the easiest or most comfortable watch, this still feels like essential Christmas viewing.
21 Round For Christmas pays at the Park Theatre until December 23rd
For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/21-round-for-christmas/about
Images by Cam Harle Photos