THEATRE : Santa's sweet revenge

Boys' Stuff Crucible Studio, Sheffield
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The Independent Culture
It's Christmas Eve and all over the world people are having sex. But not childless Angie and Nick, which at first seems strange since she is eager, and Nick is well enough disposed towards children to take a job as Santa Claus. That he has been subtly subverting his avuncular role by devising "accidental" punishments for objectionable children and parents increases our initial regard for him as a prospective father who will not buy into the saccharine charade of idealised family life and material consumption. The slightly zany, sardonic raillery he levels at this circle is immediately attractive if somehow discomfiting.

His mockery and alienation are especially understandable when he must face Christmas dinner with his sister and brother-in-law, Donna and Duncan, who, with their new first-born see themselves as the Holy Family accessorised by Debenhams. It gets worse: their present to Angie is a phial of Duncan's sperm. Though bringing a whole new perspective to what counts in gift giving, this is not appreciated and, his secret revealed, the remaining action is devoted to Nick's calculated, sadistic revenge.

The first thing to be said about Richard Hurford's new play is how well- crafted this action is. His exposition, development, crisis and climax is expertly plotted and, under Damian Cruden's excellent direction, gathers more and more of our interest as it proceeds.

The second half quickens powerfully, and even though elements of the extreme tension, such as Nick's production of a pistol, are so evidently manipulative, they are genuinely scary and come along with more original surprises.

Another positive quality in the piece is Hurford's capacity to slide disquietingly among dramatic styles. There is, for instance, a recognisable bit of business about getting Christmas lights to work and the father- son initiations into plug wiring. These realistic touches are then swept up in the broader movement of black farce as Nick does for Donna with an exploding pudding, only for this to tighten into straight thriller mode in his humiliation of Duncan. Finally, the demons that make Nick's "brain no place to bring up a child" are stunningly realised by Liam Doona's design in a crucial shift to grotesque fantasy. I am less sure that the play is adding much to our understanding of the male psyche and the debilitating effects of boys' stuff... that pistol et al. The cause and effect of Nick's infertility and disturbance is unsatisfyingly simple, however skilfully presented.

None the less this is a copious and powerful play that evidently absorbed its small but youthful audience. Stuart McQuarrie, with a wide, engaging yet chilling smile is excellent as Nick, and is strongly supported by Fiona Bruce as Angie, Hilary McLean as Donna and Malcolm Scates as Duncan. Their commitment matches that of the Crucible Studio's adventurous programming. You'll not see this on TV.

n Until 25 Mar; Box-office: 0114-276 9922