The Santaland Diaries/Season's Greetings To All Our Friends And Family! Repertory Theatre, Birmingham <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Jingle hell: an elf's-eye view
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The Independent Culture

On the eighth floor of New York's favourite shopping destination - Macy's flagship store - the lucrative wheels of Santaland are kept turning by 140 elves. David Sedaris, the humorist, author and, crucially, former elf, has created an extremely wry account out of his personal experience as one of Santa's helpers among the candy cane and fluffy wonderland of Christmas tat.

The Santaland Diaries, a monologue adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, begins with an ad: "Macy's Herald Square. Big opportunity for outgoing individuals working as an elf." At the age of 28, a penniless newcomer to New York, David is desperate enough to apply, passes the stringent tests (including the urine one to check for drugs), and enters a bizarre elfdom. Clad in green smock, red tights and fur-trimmed velvet jingle hat, clutching The Elfin Guide and choosing the elf-name Crumpet, he begins initiation.

Pointing out that the letters of Santa also spells Satan, and that he, David, lacks any gift for relentless good cheer, his experiences inevitably veer towards the dark side. The obligation to be "merry in the face of torment and adversity" leads to a subversive clash between public duty and private fantasy, his observations spiced with references to his own sexuality and to the American soap One Life to Live. The foibles of David's elfin and Santa colleagues are sketched so deftly that, although we see only David and, briefly, Macy's managerial queen of elves, Sedaris introduces a whole charade of characters (many of whom, he notices, talk in exclamation or question marks) including the flirtatious gay Snowball and one mysterious Santa who actually spreads some genuine Christmas spirit.

Craig Gazey, looking like a mischievous leprechaun, plays David with a passable American drawl, moving the narrative along while reflecting the tedium of manning Santaland Trail from the Magic Window to Elf Island, revealing the absurdity of the whole situation with wit and a quiet inventiveness. Having played their parts as Cash Register Elf and Emergency Elf, the workers help out in Santa's homely grotto with grinding enthusiasm. All except David. On Christmas Eve, jaded by 23,000 overbearing parents increasingly bereft of festive goodwill, David is collared by a mother ordering him to threaten her whinging son with coal instead of toys in his stocking. Thoroughly elfed out, he recalls: "I said that Santa no longer traffics in coal. But if you're bad, he comes to your house and steals things - all your clothes and appliances, leaving you in the dark..."

The Santaland Diaries is preceded by Sedaris's Season's Greetings to All Our Friends and Family!, also directed by Wilson Milam. An infuriatingly smug yet also tragic Christmas round-robin letter replaces diary entries, as the determinedly positive, sunny-natured Mrs Dunbar recalls her year. Its few happy highlights have been all but swamped by the unexpected arrival, on Halloween, of her husband's illegitimate 22-year-old Vietnamese love child. The girl confuses sexual precocity and familial intimacy, is maddeningly choosy about what English she will respond to, and is a constant thorn in Mrs D's flesh. Suzan Sylvester is perfect as the apple-pie American wife, sensibly clad in twin-set and pearls, grimly determined that Christmas must go on. The fairy lights twinkle, the magi-glow fire flickers, and at 714 Tiffany Circle the stockings are being hung from the mantlepiece. Glimpses of angst shadow the usual excruciatingly false-modest references to the children's achievements interwoven with their fateful encounters with drugs and sex. A lurid picture emerges of a particularly dreadful year in the Dunbar family's life. And it's not over yet.

To 14 January (0121 236 4455)

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