Santa’s going to be kidnapped: the chimney’s blocked off and he’ll come through the skylight, fall in a pile of crunchy crisps, stick his head in a bucket, put his hand in the glue, swallow some whisky and get tangled up in the Christmas tree.
That’s the idea, anyway, in Anthony Neilson’s surreal seasonal nightmare, with songs and music by Nick Powell. Ten year-old Holly (Imogen Doel) wants her real dad back and she wants Santa to do something about it. Stuff the presents.
Her mum (Gabriel Quigley) has married a dog (Robert Stocks) – he really does have a waggly tail and a shiny nose, and he’s decorating the tree with strips of bacon. And Grandma (Amanda Hadingue) is putting a brave, carolling face on things, with the help of a close-harmony chorus in Santa hats and woolly jumpers.
This may not sound like your typical Royal Court play for Christmas or indeed any time; until you remember this venue’s historic association with writers like NF Simpson and Ken Campbell. Neilson certainly loosens a few stays, even in this catholic-minded regimen of Dominic Cooke.
The proscenium is wrapped in a huge red bow when you sit down, unravelling to reveal an all-red wall-papered set by Miriam Buether. Holly’s quest is helped, and then hindered, by a speaking teddy bear and Santa’s hopeless son, Bumblehole (delightfully played by Tom Godwin), who denies his inner elf and wants the reins to the reindeer himself.
The plot, involving plucked Santa hairs, paternal revelations and a gypsy curse, becomes a bit convoluted. But Neilson, directing his own play, creates a fantastically crazy scenario of repetitive Christmases where we are all locked into one continuous festive hell. It’s funny and disturbing because we know – or at least hope – it isn’t true.