So it’s Christmas, a time for cheerful, gushing, sentimental shows and god-awful pantos. Bah humbug to that. Which is just why the promise of a comedy horror seemed right up my street. Blood and gore for Christmas – oh now you’re talking! Sod Christmas and all that forced cheerfulness. Except… damn you Toby Hampton with your funny little play all about finding your Christmas spirit, I didn’t sign up for sentimental tosh, I came for the mindless violence.
The Grotto really is a play that doesn’t require too much deep thinking. No, really, don’t think about it because you will find all the plot holes and begin to question the way it jumps from one idea to the next without any care for explaining itself. So yes, the plot could probably do with a little tightening up and better focus but hey, don’t all the best B-movie horrors have the same issues? Instead it’s better to just go along for the ride and accept it for what it really is; an extremely silly and laugh-out-loud Christmas show.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Leyla and Pete (Laurel Marks and writer Hampton) are finishing up their work in a Santa’s Grotto. They might look like a cheerful Father Christmas and his helper Elf, but both have reasons to dislike the festive season, and it’s not just because of the annoying kids they have been dealing with all day. Yes, both have lost that Christmas spirit. That is, until Claude appears in the guise of the Christmas tree angel, supposedly to help them rediscover it, although he might have other ulterior motives going on. And Claude won’t let them leave until they do. It’s going to require a few unpleasant secrets to be revealed. Oh, and a quick anal probe of Sparkles the Elf, but we won’t go too deep into that (so to speak)!
It is certainly much more comedy than horror (much to my slight disappointment, theatre needs much more horror). The script is a lot of silly lines and puns, including some ridiculous panto-esque ‘Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes he did!’ callbacks. The horror itself isn’t really that horrific. Rather it’s some wonderfully simple but effective lighting and sound from Simon Arrowsmith designed to make you jump. Really, the biggest horror is the Christmas music that occasionally pops up, especially their take on The Snowman’s ‘We’re Walking in the Air’. Make it stop, please, just make it stop!
It’s actually Bryan Pilkington who steals the show as Claude the Angel. OK, we never actually see Pilkington, as he spends the whole show controlling the angel on a stick from behind the scenery (I did tell you it was very B movie-esque!). Yet he somehow manages to give the pound shop angel real emotion, with little turns and nods and perfect comic timing. It could quickly become a complete mess as it approaches slapstick in nature, but thankfully director Matthew Parker somehow keeps them all in their places, even if that place is the end of a stick.
Sometimes you can take a play way too seriously, picking out all its faults, and there’s no denying The Grotto has lots of them if you scratch the surface. Instead, you just need to sit back, laugh until your face aches and appreciate the silly writing, wonderful comic performances and a deep anal probe. If you can do that, then you really can enjoy The Grotto for what it is: silly as sin and funny as hell. But curse you Hampton, I actually felt some Christmas spirit seeping in to me, and we all know I just don’t need that.
Written by: Toby Hampton
Directed by: Matthew Parker
Set, Costume and Lighting design by: The Company
Sound design by: Simon Arrowsmith
The Grotto plays at Drayton Arms Theatre until 30 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.