The success of Conor McPherson's The Weir started a trend for plays that characterise the pub as a home-from-home for no-hoper males, the genre's bibulous grandfather being Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Hardly have the glasses been washed after Owen McCafferty's Closing Time and Doug Lucie's The Green Man than here we are again, propping up the bar at a new pub play by Simon Stephens. The piece has a number of quiet strengths, such as humane observation and stoical humour, but it does not prompt you to raise a glass to its formal daring or originality.
Just as there's something melancholy about the sight of Yuletide decorations after twelfth night, so there's a built-in desolateness to premiering a play that is set just before Christmas in the second week of January. That presumably explains the timing of this powerfully acted production by Jo McInnes. Located in a bleak boozer in the East End, the piece introduces us to four men whose loneliness is thrown into sharper relief by a festival that puts such a focus on family. For Michael, the landlord (Fred Ridgeway), the season brings home his defeat in the custody battle for his son and his exile from County Wicklow. Drink can't entirely distract the foul-mouthed builder Billy (Lee Ross) from the creeping failure of will that sees him still living with his mother at the age of 29. The elderly Italian barber, Seppo (Bernard Gallagher) is haunted by his deceased wife and exercised by the question of whether he should accept his brother's invitation to return to live with him in Italy or remain in London with a dying business out of respect to his spouse's ghost. Is it love or fear that makes him stay put?
So far, so conventional. Things take a livelier turn with the arrival of Charlie, an enigmatic figure in a postman's uniform who nurses a cello case and drinks in silence until someone asks if anyone knows a good joke, whereupon he delivers a long gag with the mordant aplomb of a great stand-up.
But this character, played with an unnerving mix of calmness and aggression by the excellent Paul Ritter, eventually emerges as another cliché. In a case of The Postman Cometh, he is the dramatic catalyst who uncovers everyone else's problems before divulging his own. And like that of the female outsider in The Weir, his story caps the lot, chastening his fellow drinkers. But unlike Iceman and The Weir, Stephens's play fails to convert its setting into a more illuminating symbol.
There is a fair amount to enjoy in Christmas. I liked the way that, after Charlie's departure, two of the others tried to shrug off his effect with burly ridicule. The interplay between the disparate regulars is expertly handled. But the tipple the dramatist is serving here is the same mixture as before.
To 31 January (020-7610 4224)
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