Two nurses at Hull Infirmary, one young and flighty, one rather older and depressed at her husband/partner’s suicide, are trying to cope with the Christmas rush at A&E. Suddenly one of them finds an unexpected gift in her bag: two flights to Prague. The two of them put aside their personal problems to celebrate Christmas with a girls’ night out in the Czech capital.
We are in familiar Hull Truck territory, taking ordinary people into an unfamiliar place or situation where we can enjoy their faux pas and failures until they finally, improbably, adjust, have fun, triumph or find themselves – except that Christmas Crackers is not like that. Writer and director John Godber’s 53rd play is more ambitious and less formulaic. In what he terms his first adult festive play the festive element is provided by the collision of reality, fantasy and folk lore, whilst only an adult would take such a cynical view of reality, despite the ambiguously happy ending.
The Prague scenes either side of the interval play with an elusive reality: unexplained appearances and disappearances, a ghost, a mysterious mime, a magic puppet show. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work. Middle European expressionism sits uneasily with the nurses’ reactions which alternate between wonderment, fear and caustic put down.
Certainly, judging from over-heard interval conversations, the audience is much more at home in the opening section outside the A&E department, with an entertaining set of patients, visitors and employees voicing complaints and prejudices in a series of black-out sketches. Maybe many of the characters are caricatures, but nobody disputes Godber’s ear for demotic dialogue and the whole thing is well rooted by Robert Angell’s funny and convincing performance as Keith, the security man, the common factor in all the dialogues, a clenched-jaw misanthrope whose cynicism is a defence against sensitivity.
Una McNulty and Amy Thompson give nicely contrasted performances as the nurses, as well as doubling a few other characters, but the main quick-changes artists are Matthew Booth and Robert Hudson. Both have their moments, but their Prague characters are so grotesque that only the excuse of fantasy would spare Hull Truck a complaint from the Czech Consulate.
Pip Leckenby, well versed in making much of limited space at both Hull and Scarborough, manages to transform Hull Infirmary into the Charles Bridge and Hradcany Hill. As a play Christmas Crackers finds the same transformation rather more difficult, but manages to be more thought-provoking, if less consistently successful, than the well-received first scene suggests.