Theatre Review: Grimly Handsome, Royal Court ‘Darkest of Christmas Shows’

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I’m increasingly of the opinion that, when it comes to Christmas movies, you’re either in the Elf and Love Actually camp, or you’re all for the likes of Bad Santa and Gremlins. If you’re all in for the latter and like you Christmas spirits dark then, well, Grimly Handsome could be the festive treat for you. But be warned, for this new play from Julia Jarcho isn’t just bleak, it’s also obscure and, at times, outright surreal. But it is also damn funny and pretty thrilling.

In summary, I loved it.

But, if you’re going to see this, you may think – for the first half an hour – that I’ve either been winding you up, or that I’ve lost my mind because you won’t really get a grasp on what is going on in front of you for some time. And considering this show is only ninety minutes long, there is obviously a huge risk being taken here. But, my, it pays off wonderfully as, truthfully, all the pieces don’t fall into place until the final few minutes. And then when it hits you… Wow. This is some very clever writing indeed.

So, what is it about?

Well, the play is being performed in The Site, round the back at the Royal Court, a place you enter after walking through various staged abstract scenes – a lot filled with Christmas trees, a run-down gym, a deserted animal enclosure at a zoo, and two men muttering over the outline of a murder victim on the ground in front of them.

And you don’t find many answers as the play actually gets going. Two men (Alex Austin, Alex Beckett), shivering on the sidewalks in New York, chat absent-mindedly about women and Christmas traditions as they try to sell Christmas trees to shoppers passing by. But why are their accents flitting back and forth between perfect Queen’s English and East European accents? And why is their sales patter so odd?

But just as what you’re witnessing finally clicks, into the yard walks a woman (Amake Okafor), wanting to buy a tree. Only she, instead, finds herself attracted to one of the men and overwhelmed by his small acts of generosity.

And then this play goes off into an entirely new direction… We get more scenes, different characters (all played by these three actors), all seemingly unrelated, or only linked to this main plot through the thinnest of connections. But, oh, how it all comes together in the grimmest of ways.

At almost every point in this production, you are kept off balance, whether it’s by the smoke and mirrors in the script, the fascinating slips into sub-plots that end up feeding back into the central story in more ways than you can imagine, or the verve in the design and direction from Chloe Lamford and Sam Pritchard.

As many scenes are played out on television scenes dotted around the room as are performed in front of us. There’s a smart use of surveillance cameras and the whole production is drenched with more of Chekhov’s guns than I’ve ever witnessed in my life. But this play is so tightly plotted, its scenes so expertly woven together. And, at the climax, not only do we leave with one of the more surreal finales I’ve seen on a stage, but also, we’re left with a great sense of satisfaction in piecing together this most intriguing of plays.

Royal Court Theatre, London, to December 23, 2017.
All production images by Johan Persson.

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