There are 125 suicides every week in the UK and 75% are male. That’s around 5,000 men per year taking their lives. 5,000 who, for whatever reason, feel they would rather bring it all to an end rather than face another day of their pain.
This brings us to Harry’s Christmas, Steven Berkoff’s 1985 play, revived here by director Scott Le Crass and ThreeDumb Theatre’s Stephen Smith. As you’ll probably guess, this isn’t a joyful Christmas offering. It’s downright bleak and one to seriously avoid if you are looking for some high energy Christmas spirit. But it is a play that will make you think long and hard about those suicide figures.
Harry, played by Smith, is 40 and very much alone. It’s four days before Christmas when he debates whether to add last year’s cards to the six he has received this year. Over the next 70 minutes we spend a brief moment each day with him, as we watch the loneliness and sadness take further hold. All until Christmas Day, when it all becomes too much – too much for Harry, and almost too much for the audience, as he declines deeper into his despair, almost disappearing into his chair, his life shrinking in front of us.
Berkoff’s writing is spot on in drawing out the misery as Harry tries to justify his lack of cards, and by extension, his lack of any real friends. The play may be close to 40 years old, but it is perhaps more relevant than ever today. Much of this is due to Le Crass’ script updates, especially the use of a mobile phone to demonstrate how we are in one way more in touch than ever, yet at the same time, even further removed physically – all those people instantly contactable by a call, yet never within actual reach.
It’s a tough watch. But it’s a compelling one, due in no small part to Smith’s performance. We at ET have raved many times previously about his stage presence and Harry’s Christmas is another to add to his impressive itinerary. As we reach Christmas Day it is impossible not to look away, however painful it is, as he drowns his sorrows with alcohol and pills. It’s a final act that demonstrates why Smith deserves to be seen by bigger audiences in 2023.
Le Crass’ directing is equally up to the task. The use of a voiceover to represent Harry’s inner monologue is well considered, giving an extra dimension to the one-sided conversation. The decision to have Smith leave the stage regularly not only helps separate scenes, but somehow draws us deeper into his most private moments. We suddenly feel like eavesdroppers, as he argues on the phone with an ex about why they split up.
The lighting and sound further push us deeper into the bleakness; quite literally so with the lighting, which dims as each day passes, until finally we are watching Harry in his chair with darkness all around him. The ominous music also raises the tension another notch for each day that passes.
Harry’s Christmas is not a show for the light-hearted, but it will leave you deeply moved. And for many it will make you either see more of yourself than you wish to in the character, or make you further consider the loneliness of others over Christmas. It’s a play that could go so horribly wrong in lesser hands, but the combination of Smith and Le Crass elevates it to one that is a compelling, heart wrenching watch.
Written by: Steven Berkoff
DIrected by: Scott Le Crass
Sound design and music by: Julian Starr
Produced by: ThreeDumb Theatre
Harry’s Christmas plays at King’s Head Theatre until 24 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.