- Chris O'Rourke
The Long Christmas Dinner
Emmet Byrne, Valerie O’Connor, Fionnuala Gygax, Will O’Connell and Rachel O’Byrne in The Long Christmas Dinner.
Image by Ros Kavanagh
A staple of American high school and college productions, Thornton Wilder's Our Town is rightly recognised as a modern classic. Yet ask most to name another work by Wilder, who was prolific and won three Pulitzer prizes, and many will draw a blank. Some will remember his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but not all of Wilder's work has aged as well. Including his one act play The Long Christmas Dinner.
Dating from 1931, The Long Christmas Dinner makes for an odd curio. A one act play featuring a cast of twelve, it follows the Bayard family's ritualised Christmas dinner over a period of ninety years. Offering snapshots of how they invest the banalities of their lives with meaning as times change. Flashes of life, or character, like hurried polaroids, capture uneven moments, some sharp, some blurred, others missing the mark as time passes indifferently by. An impressive cast trying to invest passing styles with as much substance as they can muster. Revealing a hollowness at the heart of things; The Long Christmas Dinner unable to bear the collective weight it gathers around itself.
Valerie O’Connor in The Long Christmas Dinner. Image by Ros Kavanagh.
Like Wilder, directors Raymond Keane and Sarah Jane Scaife deconstruct traditional family conventions, including Christmas, revealing them as hollow shells into which we pour significance. Yet if cliches retain a spark of the life blood that give them form, that's often not the case here. A mausoleum cold permeates proceedings, due to an excess of brevity and an excess of tropes. Reinforced by Sally Withnell's set and Stephen Dodds' lighting. References to Edward Hopper might occasionally lend shape to tone and composition, but the link can feel spurious given a general lack of warmth. And that other links appear stronger, including Sinead Cuthbert's fashion parade from later Henry James to Norman Rockwell. As well as a saturation in the Mom and Pop stylings of American cinema. All conventions into which we also pour significance.
Rachel O’Byrne and Máire Ní Ghráinne in The Long Christmas Dinner. Image by Ros Kavanagh
Unlike Kauffman and Hart's The Man Who Came To Dinner, The Long Christmas Dinner is light on seasonal charm, with it's miming, like its American accents, something of a hit an miss affair. Like a pair of Christmas socks, it has just enough of the season about it. Even if it might not be the present you hoped for, with its darker themes and death always looming large in the Bayard home around Christmas time. Yet Wilder crams a lot into his fifty minutes. Touching on themes of memory, tradition, ritual, change, death and nostalgia. On how the human song remains the same even as it's ever new.
The Long Christmas Dinner by Thornton Wilder, runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre until December 31.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre