Theatre Review: Silent Night brings an early dose of Christmas cheer (until 10th December)

What is Christmas like with your family? I can guarantee it’s not nearly as dysfunctional as the one depicted in Mary Rachel Brown’s new play, Silent Night. Chock-full of jokes and characters that have to be seen to be believed, this is a play that makes the final rush to the supermarket on Christmas Eve seem like a stroll through the local library. In short, it’s frenetic, festive fun.

In Silent Night, we are invited into the home of the Lickfolds, who are madly preparing for the annual Christmas display competition, known by the acronym ARCE (cue an onslaught of bum jokes). There’s mum, Anne, a modern housewife with a glue-gun addiction. Her husband, Bill, is a doomsday prepper who will do anything to protect his family. And then there’s their son, Rodney. The less said there the better. Oh, and they don’t know it yet, but an unexpected guest is on his way.

This play is not so much an antidote to Christmas as it is a slap in the face to tradition and all the religious and commercial symbolism that populates the modern festive season. Taking place over the course of one evening, we watch as the Lickfolds struggle to maintain focus on their individual passion projects. Only one can succeed – and no-one seems prepared to give an inch. Absurdity ensues.

Brown’s writing is unambiguous and unapologetic. It’s reminiscent of the Aussie sketch comedy of the D-Generation but with plenty of current social observations to bring it into the now. In fact, Brown has crammed so many themes and ideas into the play it feels a lot like a crowded Christmas dinner table, where no topic is off-limits. At times the dialogue and action appears a little repetitive, and we can probably do with five less ARCE puns, but there is no doubting that this is a comedy for inner-city Australian audiences.

Designer Hugh O’Connor has bottled suburbia and placed it squarely on the Eternity Theatre stage. The set is festooned with more Christmas tack than you could fit in a $2 shop. Colourful LEDs flicker on and off around the proscenium and the obligatory adorned tree wrestles for space centre stage with a growing nativity scene. Even Bill’s heavy metal bunker entrance, leading to an off-stage survival space, is tinsel-ed to the nines. All the decorations make the stage increasingly crowded, adding to the pressure-cooker feeling.

While the staging points to something fairly realistic, the characters are over-the-top and then some. Bill (Richard Sydenham) is a character more likely to be found in the US of A than Sydney’s North Ryde, but he certainly sets the piece up for many laughs. Unfortunately, Sydenham seemed to be holding something back on opening night. His performance was a little too reserved for a play this ridiculous and as a result the comedy didn’t play as easily as it should have.

Rising star, Aaron Glenane, plays Rodney, the Lickfold’s only son. At 33 years of age, he is the stay-at-home adult that all parents fear. Glenane seems at home in this truly odd character. His personality is given a slow reveal, but the devilish gleam in his eyes as he unleashes his true identity is worth the lengthy build. And his hover-board skills are beyond impressive.

Of the three Lickfold characters, Anne (Amanda Bishop) is probably the most relatable and certainly the most comfortable in her suburban skin. She brings us a woman who is on the edge, completely oblivious to the needs of her family despite her protestations otherwise. Bishop’s delivery is on point and her timing mostly impeccable (the props gave her a little grief). That said, she really holds the piece together.

Finally, without giving anything away, Michael Denkha’s Uninvited Guest is charming and mysterious but could do with a little more menace. There’s an air of having seen it all before, which makes sense in context but pulls down the tension. Still, he is a worthy addition to the comic cast.

Director and renowned funny-man, Glynn Nicholas, warns us in his program notes that those who are incapable of laughing at our own ridiculousness are destined to end up alone suffering from early-onset dementia. It is a sentiment that suits his take on a play which begins recognisably enough but soon descends into utter farce. Nicholas certainly plays up the sight gags – you’ve never seen the Virgin Mary look so bedazzled – but the cramped stage makes it difficult for the actors to really let loose physically. There is no doubt that the rehearsal room would have been tremendous fun, but onstage everyone just seems to be trying a little too hard.

Overall this production feels a little like the first fall of the Jacaranda flowers – they need to settle a little into a perfect purple carpet before the bees come to taste the sweet honey. Oh dear, it seems the absurdity may have gone to my head! What I’m trying to say is that after a few more runs the cast and crew will settle in to an easy rhythm and this production will be all the better, and funnier, for it. Worth a look later in the run.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Silent Night is playing at the Eternity Playhouse until 10th December. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Tuesday 14th November. Photo credit Brett Boardman.