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A Thornton Wilder Christmas, King’s Head Theatre

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner
Thornton Wilder
Directed by Tim Sullivan
★★★

Pros: A brilliant script filled with excellent characters, lots of laughs and some very good acting.

Cons: The first act seemed to labour in places and some of the performances were a bit unpolished at times.

Our Verdict: Well worth a look. The show is Christmassy without being nauseating.

Courtesy of Saviour Theatre Company

Thornton Wilder is a multi-award-winning American author and playwright, probably best known for his plays Our Town and The Skin of our Teeth. Both The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner are part of a collection of Wilder’s short one act plays.

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden is a period drama which begins with a New Jersey family saying goodbye to their neighbours before embarking on an automobile journey. Stephanie Beattie, who plays the mother ‘Ma’, chats and waves to her fellow townsfolk while her two young children laugh and play in the background. The ‘Ma’ character is a traditionalist and a staunch Christian. Her views are old-fashioned and her parenting style is of the ‘tough but fair’ variety. It is difficult to imagine this character being placed in the hands of a more suitable actress than Stephanie Beattie, who brings just the right level of humour and sensitivity to the role. Her husband is also expertly played by Simon Dobson who looks so handsome and authentic in his costume that it seems as if he were transported from a bygone era. However, as much as this is an enjoyable scene, there were quite a few times when the flow of the action seemed to jar slightly with some of the acting becoming a bit hammy in places.

As the car journey continues, we learn that the parents are on their way to visit one of their other children, a married daughter who has recently lost her own daughter in childbirth. We also get to see different sides of the characters, particularly the mother, who has a very sweet and caring side to counteract her tough-love persona. Wilder’s script is quite philosophical and lightly examines why bad things happen to good people (a running theme in nearly all of his work). There are quite a few darker moments woven throughout what is, in essence, a light-hearted comedy.

The second half, entitled The Long Christmas Dinner is exactly what you would imagine, ie. a very long Christmas dinner. However, this one-act play actually explores 90 years of the Bayard family so it is, in fact, a great many dinners rolled into one. We watch babies being born and then grow up, parents turning into grandparents – all dramatised around the Christmas table. This story is considerably more serious than the first as it deals with a wider range of family-related problems and various complicated generational divides. This is where the production really starts to warm up as the actors seemed to really relish the idea of playing characters who grow from young to old in such a short space of time. Although some of the performances were far from perfect, every actor in this production brings plenty of charm and individuality to their roles and the ageing element showcased considerable range across the board. I found Ben Z. Fuiava to be really quite brilliant both in his role as Cousin Brandon and in his earlier appearance in the first show as a flirtatious gas pump attendant. He has a speaking voice which commands total attention from the audience and his ability to change the age of his character so quickly and believably is really quite remarkable.

Overall this is a really fun show with loads of Christmas cheer which never veers into nauseating festive territory. The script is poignant and the performances are not bad at all. Certainly worth the ticket price.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

A Thornton Wilder Christmas runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 5th January 2013.
Box Office: 0207 478 0160 or book online at

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