Despite its off-Broadway success this is the London premiere of Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel, the award-winning playwright’s festive tale making its European debut at Southwark’s cosy Union Theatre. The play is a loving pastiche of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – only, instead of a miserly money-lender roaming the streets of Victorian London, the action revolves around an equally miserly cabaret performer, Irish O’Flanagan (Ian Stroughair), in the club scene of 1940s New York. A newly-dead angel (Michael Adams), on the verge of getting kicked out of heaven, replaces the ghosts of the past, present and future, and although a bit of supernatural time travelling still plays a major part, Busch adds a few extra twists and turns that ensure the road to redemption is not quite as straightforward as in the original novel. These extra twists draw out the action, but, despite the lack of interval, the rapid scene-hopping pace means that the action never feels as if it lags.
Despite its clear affection for the spirit of Christmas, the production is all too aware of the clichés and mawkish sentimentality that often present themselves in seasonal stories. The whole play is a deliberately tongue-in-cheek nod to such simplistic morality tales, and although the audience asides and ironic self-awareness of the performers can get a little grating, they are clearly having too much fun for us to mind all that much.
The stage is set already when the audience arrives: a Christmas storyteller set up, complete with presents and tree, to the audience’s left, and Irish’s dressing table to their right, although centre stage remains simple, allowing it to host any number of scenes throughout the play. The narrator (Ellen Verenieks) is tweaking the set as the audience settles, drawing us into the story immediately, and placing us within the narrator’s world. Although the narrator’s introduction is charming at first it begins to feel unnecessary after a few scene transitions, and it is a relief when the main body of action is allowed to continue uninterrupted. Verenieks also plays the Voice of God, broadcast over loudspeakers during the play, and its recorded nature means the dialogue in those scenes feels somewhat stilted and inorganic.
With a couple of notable exceptions the American accents are generally steady throughout, and acting is consistent, if generally unremarkable. Stroughair is utterly the star of the show, hamming up the physical comedy and delivering his lines with perfect timing and just the right amount of over-the-top flair. Valerie (Jourdan Amelia Storey) impresses with her emotive acting at the climactic point of the play and Eddie (Tom Whitelock) is earnest and lovable, the perfect foil to Irish’s brash behaviour.
The acting is not naturalistic – cast members come forward to address speeches to the audience, and are illuminated by spotlight at particularly cheesy moments – but nor is it meant to be. This is a play that mocks the Christmas spirit, but also has fun with it. It doesn’t matter so much that we can see the props about to be “conjured”, or how low-budget the “flying” effect is when the whole thing is so wonderfully ridiculous anyway.
Despite the comedy, there are a couple of genuinely shocking – and emotional – moments, but, as it’s Christmas, everything ends well, and as the cast troop back on stage, there is a truly festive moment – even if Irish can’t quite stop herself from making faces!