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  • Chris ORourke

Christmas Craicers

Mary Murray and Edwin Mullane in Gary Duggan's A Christmas Matter as part of The Corps Ensemble's Christmas Craicers. Image by Kristof Moscicki


On the Six Plays of Christmas

Christmas crackers usually fall into two categories. There’s the lightweight, flimsy duds where half the joke is missing, the paper hat tears upon contact, the surprise proves to be a big disappointment, and if it takes an arm wrestler to pull it apart, it still doesn’t deliver any kind of bang. Then there’s the loud, explosive cracker with its hilariously bad jokes, well made hat, and top notch surprises that genuinely delight. In truth, The Corps Ensemble’s "Christmas Craicers,” a series of six short plays for the festive season, serves up a mixture of both duds and crackers in equal proportion. In several of which the art of the short play, where every detail needs to be salient and succinct, hasn’t been sufficiently mastered. Even so, with "Christmas Craicers" even its duds usually have redeeming qualities. And its crackers can prove to be real, seasonal delights.

If simply saying you’re rich doesn’t make it so, simply saying something is seasonal doesn’t make it so either. As proves to be the case with half the shows on offer, passing off such Scrooge like scrapings of seasonal referencing as to barely make it onto the Christmas list. Such as Hillary Dziminski’s slice of damaged life, Skate Away On, in which two lost souls find each other waiting for their delayed flight on the eve before Christmas Eve. Yet it really could be any day, with the Christmas referencing offering little of real import. A series of clever, seemingly aimless conversations over whiskey and coke sees two characters circling each other like planes looking for somewhere to land. Under Tracy Ryan’s superb direction, a lewd and crude Neill Fleming plays perfect foil to a poshly polished Jemma Nic Lochlainn, with both turning in strong performances. If the end feels more like an introduction, Dziminski has done enough to make you want to know more. Leaving a sense of having watched a first act in development rather than a self contained, short work.

Jemma Nic Lochlainn and Neill Fleming in Hillary Dziminski's Skate Away On as part of The Corps Ensemble's Christmas Craicers. Image by Kristof Moscicki

In Robert Higgins’ Once Around The Block, two men learn to say hello while saying goodbye. Looking as if Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints had shifted to New York, Higgins’ tale of two men setting out to honour their tradition of completing the twelve pubs of Christmas sees male conversations over alcohol revealing several home truths. With both Jed Murray and Micheal Bates delivering warmly impressive performances, assisted by Mary Murray bringing up the supporting rearguard, Higgins’ script has enough wheels turning to feel like a short play rather than a snapshot of a moment. Something Andy Crook’s robust direction helps bring vividly to life in this touching tale of friendship.

By far the weakest of the six, Adam O’Keeffe's I’m Away Now, Thanks, delivers a torturous Christmas countdown in which focus and writing leave a lot to be desired. Taking place in a shelter outside of which an ice storm is raging, there’s less a sense that this could be anywhere so much as a feeling that the play isn't ready yet. Involving a Hal like computer and a single human being, what follows is essentially a lengthy sequence of weak Q&A being passed off as dialogue, leading to a predictable conclusion built around a weak seasonal reference. None of which is helped by Hillary Dziminski’s compositionally poor direction, leaving a hard working Andy Crook and Aoife Honohan looking lost, unfocused, and hung out to dry by both writer and director. Both of whom show enough at moments to suggest they can do far, far better.

L-R: Michael Bates,Jed Murray and Mary Murray in Robert Higgins' Once Around The Block as part of The Corps Ensemble's Christmas Craicers. Image by Kristof Moscicki

If the pre-intermission starters prove edible, post intermission main-course and dessert prove absolutely scrumptious. Showing his usual penchant for all things supernatural, Stewart Roche’s touching A Christmas Visit channels Dan Fogelberg’s Same Auld Lang Syne in a tale of two old flames meeting on Christmas Eve. Paced to perfection by director Matthew Ralli, Roche's script rambles like its got all the time in the world, until a last minute twist gives it body and weight. A twist that might look gimmicky in the hands of a lesser writer, or outside of the festive season. But like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, its supernatural dimension lends it depth and texture. For which a staggeringly impressive Neill Fleming, and an equally impressive Lesley Conroy, deserve much of the plaudits. Who, along with Jemma Nic Lochlainn, make us care and care deeply in the mere matter of minutes we spend in their company.

If Roche delivers the best surprise, Lisa Walsh’s delightful The Tingle delivers the bulk of the humour in a wonderfully smart tale of two damaged souls in the middle of life searching for a new direction. Looking on Tinder for someone to share that new direction with. Throughout, Walsh’s beautifully observed characters amble comfortably through what are essentially unforced monologues, as well as sparse, exacting dialogue, with Walsh showing a deft touch in terms of directness and humour. Something director Hillary Dziminski delivers on, eliciting strong performances from a wonderful Deborah Wiseman and a superbly American Michael Bates, both ably supported by an impressive Jed Murray. Indeed, whatever the shortcomings of I’m Away Now, Thanks, Dziminski’s direction proves whole other level here in this wonderfully charming tale.

Neill Fleming and Lesley Conroy in Stewart Roche's A Christmas Visit as part of The Corps Ensemble's Christmas Craicers. Image by Kristof Moscicki

As is always the case with The Corps Ensemble, you can be pretty sure acting will always be of the highest calibre. Yet knowing that still doesn’t prepare you for an emotionally devastating Mary Murray in Gary Duggan’s gorgeously, irresistibly, and unforgettably wonderful A Christmas Matter. Not that Murray’s co-star, Edwin Mullane, is by any means a slouch, even if a deliciously supporting Neill Fleming risks upstaging everyone. In Duggan’s festive tale of a married couple reflecting on their life together while they wait in A&E for news of their son, Murray’s unheard cries of desolation are perfectly foiled by Mullane’s well meaning, hopelessly romantic husband who believes everything is all right. Conveying a Capra-like fondness for the lives of simple people, Duggan delivers a lovely and loving script laced with wonderfully observed details. Indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to find a box of Roses put to better theatrical use. Even Aoife Honohan’s doctor proves perfectly detailed during her brief cameo. All of which is masterfully directed by Jed Murray. But watch yourself once Mary Murray gets into gear. For Murray will play with your heartstrings till you won’t know whether to laugh or cry in a soul riveting performance. And there is nothing you can do to stop her.

A seasonal selection of six theatrical tapas, showing a lot of sitting, drinking, and an awful lot more talking than physical action, "Christmas Craicers" finds The Corps Ensemble ending the year on a strong, if sometimes ragged note. If "Christmas Craicers" enjoys a punk like, ramshackle, pub theatre vibe that suits it at times, it doesn’t always jingle all the bells. Yet those it does ring, it does so brilliantly. Including an absolute cracker by Gary Duggan that’s saturated with seasonal joy. A Christmas play so utterly festive it deserves to become a Christmas classic. For this, and for five other festive reasons, go treat yourself to some delightful "Christmas Craicers.”

"Christmas Craicers,” six short festive plays presented by The Corps Ensemble, runs at The Bohemian Theatre, above Mc Geough’s Pub, Phibsboro, until December 7.

For more information, visit The Corps Ensemble.

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