A Thornton Wilder Christmas, King's Head Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

There's a famous scene in Citizen Kane where Orson Welles chronicles the disintegration of a sixteen year marriage in two minutes of screen time through a montage of increasingly chilly breakfast confrontations.

It was only after he had created the sequence that Welles realised that the idea was “stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner by Thornton Wilder”.  The latter piece –  in which four generations of the Bayard family take their turn at the festive board in a speeded-up succession that compresses ninety years into thirty minutes – is now presented with another early one-act Wilder play, also published 1931, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, in this theatrically fascinating, if somewhat slight-seeming, double-bill directed by Tim Sullivan for Savio(u)r Company. 

Wilder was that comparatively rare bird – a man intent on deploying newfangled and subversive theatrical methods to communicate not an ideology of alienation but old-fashioned democratic sentiment and a fortifying resistance to despair.  Part of the interest here lies in watching Wilder experiment with techniques he developed in the major works.  The temporal foreshortening in The Long Christmas Dinner anticipates the dramatist's games with time in The Skin Of Our Teeth (1942), his comic-strip history of mankind.  With its resident Stage Manager who orchestrates and participates in the proceedings, The Happy Journey looks forward to Our Town (1938). 

Sullivan's characterful cast prove attractively equal to the challenges posed by plays that stipulate a bare stage and minimal props.  Registering every lurch and jolt of the car trip from New Jersey in their body language, the actors portraying the archetypal Kirby family in Happy Journey beautifully convey the folksy charm, humour and sharp poignancy of a piece which celebrates how people survive grief and loss through force of habit and attending to life's practicalities.

Stephanie Beattie is deeply affecting as Ma, the gabby, moralising (and brave) incarnation of this spirit.  The eloquently paced Long Christmas Dinner offers a time-lapse look at successive phases of the Bayard family from a period when the oldest member can recall Indians through the First World War and its casualties to an age of youthful rebellion.  This endless Yuletide ritual has both elements of farce and an achingly bleak poetry of ironic repetition with refrains such as “only the passing of time can help in these things”.  You can see why the play moved Orson Welles to unconscious theft.

To January 5 2013; 0207 478 0160