Christmas can be a difficult time of the year to be alone. Everything seems designed to highlight your loneliness – from the number of cards you (don’t) receive to the merrily celebrated plans of others. It is this sense that permeates Berkoff’s Harry’s Christmas – as the titular character slides from a defensive and brittle optimism to a fug of lonely despair.
I have said before that Stephen Smith is an extraordinary physical actor. Harry’s Christmas is a less physical piece than previous outings – much of it is static and delivered from an armchair where Harry opines on his life. So I wondered at first if this would be a similar tour-de-force.
It is a tour-de-force but it is not similar. Here Smith produces a nuanced performance that speaks volumes. A slump of the shoulders at just the right moment as Harry slips from his optimistic perch. A glance at a phone that refuses to ring. The delivery was sublime taking the audience on Harry’s journey. Willing someone – anyone – to reach out to a man who is clearly flawed, but not deserving of his unloved status.
Thinking about my awareness of the original author and his usual more bombastic style, I wasn’t sure what to expect here. But Smith’s heartbreaking and exquisite subtlety enhanced the meaning of the material more than any scenery chewing would have done.
Harry is not let off the hook at any point either. Past misdeeds in relationships are hinted at. His lack of friends is clearly at least in part the fault of his own recalcitrance. He isn’t terribly nice to his mother. He has the selfishness that depression can cause in all of us as he spirals into his own misery, highlighting an almost certainly misguided sense that everyone else is happy and it is he alone who suffers.
The piece was originally written in 1985 and has been updated for modern times (whatever else Berkoff’s Harry went through he was probably spared the Michael MacIntyre Christmas special). Sometimes this worked well – such as having the child of an acquaintance he is forced to talk to appear on a camera phone to tell him about the Christmas presents he is expecting. However, one big difference between now and 1985 is the way we communicate with each other. When I have been at my lowest ebbs it was rarely phone calls I reached out with but WhatsApps and tweets. These didn’t appear in Harry’s life – understandably due to the text, but it does raise an interesting but underexplored question about loneliness in an age of mass and instant communication.
I was originally going to warn those who are feeling alone or unloved this Christmas that this show might not be for them. It’s a dark piece with a dark ending. But actually, when you are going through what Harry does, it can sometimes help to see that you are far from alone. And in many ways, it could, in fact, be helpful to see that others understand you and your pain. It’s been written and beautifully understood and conveyed. Maybe sitting in the dark in a theatre for an hour could be just the catharsis needed.
For anyone else, it is also important that we remember those for whom Christmas is hardest. And this play is such a sublime examination of that I think we can all come out richer for seeing it.
This production is in aid of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). If you are struggling with any of the issues outlined in this review please follow the link to resources that can help.