The Other Room have established themselves as the Channel 4 of Christmas in Cardiff, with their alternative Christmas show. And this year, up and coming company Big Loop are resident with Cheer.
It’s an entertaining enough piece of alternative Christmas, with just enough cynicism to feel like a grown-up alternative to the usual Christmas flair. The idea itself it’s that original- cooler reviewers would compare it to Black Mirror, all I could think was ‘Hunger Games with Christmas’. The premise being that the world is now a dystopian divided society where the rich have sectioned off districts where Christmas is permitted, and the poor have to buy black market Christmas decorations and rely on the artificial stimulate ‘Cheer’ in order to pretend they have what the rich do. What it does do is raise a multitude of questions about the rich/poor divide, commercialism, expectation, family, substance abuse, privilege, and a whole stocking full more.
Kitty Hughes script itself however feels underdeveloped, and as a result in the latter half feel repetitive- rather then delving deeper into the character’s lives or reasoning, we are stuck in a bit of a loop of the emptiness of Christmas. That Todd wants to get Christmas for his family feels like the set up, but we never really get to the motivations why- why this Christmas (it’s hinted at but never explained), what drove him to desperation of selling Cheer and hunting down Joules now? Similarly, we never learn what pushed her to leave her life, the latter half of the script feels like it’s building to that, but never quite gets there. Their shared experiences of a Christmas that doesn’t quite measure up is a great set up and brings the two characters together in the middle of the script effectively, but it’s missing something of a second half development and conclusion that would have really made the script click. Alongside that, the working-class character feels a little too close to caricature to be comfortable. It’s a hard line to walk, especially given the set up, and with a little more character development that probably would have been avoided.
It is however immensely entertaining and engaging. There are some genuine laughs, and as the final scenes unravel, a real sense of care and engagement for Joules in particular. The characters themselves are likeable while having distinctly unlikable traits- the perfect Christmas combination. Cory Tucker plays Todd with an affable charm and makes him feel genuinely like the nice guy who just got a bit desperate. His cheeky-charm ways with Joules as well make him feel genuine and strays away from trying to make this working-class character seem too ‘street’ or over the top. Alice Downing gives a strong performance as Joules. She’s funny and forthright with exactly the right dry wit in her delivery for this script. But underneath that she manages to execute the slow unravelling of Joules. She’s an intensely watchable and interesting performer and she really holds the piece together.
The set is a delight. From the drab upstairs office of a pub (is that what the upstairs of Porters looks like?) opens up to a wondrously tacky Christmas Cupboard (not a euphemism). The kind that looks like your Aunt’s house circa 1989, all fluffy tinsel and baubles. Ceci Calf creates the perfect set for the script- the hidden Christmas, the over the top commercial feeling, the slightly tacky- and the dark depressing reality of the other side of things. It’s simple yet brilliantly effective.
Duncan Hallis directs with energy and a lot of honesty. While there might have been room for development in the script, Hallis brings out the best in it-which is a combination of the comedy, and the honesty lurking beneath it. The final segments have some powerful undertones, and Hallis knows when to pull back, and let those moments land with an audience. He also knows when to balance the absurdity of the comedy with enough humanity to keep the piece focused and engaged. Hallis’ direction wrangles both script and actors into an effective package that really helps to focus what feels like the heart of Kitty Hughes writing.
As much as Cheer perhaps misses a few opportunities, and doesn’t quite hit the marks it promises, there’s much to be applauded. Firstly, the chance to see any alternative Christmas show, and one that tries to tackle big issues while being entertaining is equally worthy of praise. As a company Big Loop are still developing, finding their feet and their voice, and Cheer is a departure from their previous devised work. And it works, it shows the potential of all involved.