Hull Truck Theatre has a long tradition of workplace dramas which mix slice of life realism with broad comedy and, sometimes, wish fulfilment. This tradition has brought plenty of triumphs (Bouncers springs immediately to mind), but in recent years has sometimes seemed to be recycling the same ideas – which is where Nick Lane comes in.
Like My Favourite Summer, his first play for adults earlier this year, Blue Cross Xmas is immediately identifiable as a Hull Truck play, but with a freshness, humanity and wit that removes any hint of staleness. Lane sets his play in Jasper & Yates’ department store and focuses on five employees, mostly life’s unfortunates, but not hopeless losers, over Christmas 2006 and 2007. The play is a cunningly paced mix of confessional (monologues play a big part), re-enactment of life in the store and narration of how supervisor Des, a man who attracts disaster as the sparks fly upward, spends his last Christmas at Jasper & Yates.
Where Blue Cross Xmas is most successful is in creating five thoroughly nice people – how unfashionable! – with the caricatures saved for the other parts they take on: it is made absolutely clear that the five “real” characters are acting all this out, not the actors doubling roles.
Wendy and Sue are friends of long standing, forty-ish, both now on their own, though Wendy’s ex always threatens a temporary, probably violent return. Wendy takes the reclusive approach to loneliness, Sue turns to desperate clubbing, both (in totally sympathetic performances by Meriel Scholfield and Rebecca Clay) too intelligent not to understand their own defence mechanisms. Robert Angell is splendidly dry and laconic as widower Des, every man’s friend, but his own worst enemy, whose fear of commitment blocks his relationship with Wendy.
Thea Rowland, as Wendy’s daughter, and Christopher Lazenby, as the other young worker, may have less hinterland than the older characters, but both have very moving monologues about their feelings of responsibility for their mothers – Nick Lane is refreshingly willing to dwell on old-fashioned goodness, never over-emotional, never saccharine.Under Lane’s direction, naturalism and caricature flow into each other: all the actors switch effortlessly and hilariously into role as customers and management, gleefully sent up, with Lazenby’s egregious manager Ricky especially memorable.
Blue Cross Xmas isn’t perfect: the complications of Des’ awful day creak a bit and the sentimental ending is signalled from afar. But it makes its points with warmth and wit – and what more do you want from Christmas?