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Review: Christmas Eve (Ustinov Studio)

Laurence Boswell directs this adaptation of Daniel Kehlmann's play

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

If the festive jingle that plays on a loop in the theatre at the start of this show gives a feeling of warm log fires and stockings by the bed, the cold harsh interrogation room setting of Daniel Kehlmann's play brutally juxtaposes that cosy image. It's 22:40 on Christmas Eve and academic Judith has been pulled in off the street by an interrogator to be grilled over a suspected bomb that state intelligence suggests is due to detonate at midnight. As the clock counts down minute-by-minute, the two play a game of cat and mouse that both can ill afford to lose.

The production of Kehlmann's previous play The Mentor coasted on the strength of a star Hollywood turn from F Murray Abraham, but was considered by many to be lightweight fare. If the content in Christmas Eve is sharper and more aware of the current political climate – where the threat of terrorism is ever present – it shares some of the same problems as The Mentor . Unlike Tom Stoppard, who presents character within dazzling structures and ideas, Kehlmann is seems more concerned with content and ideologues than ensuring his characters feel fully lived in. Judith and her interrogator are not flesh and blood but opposite political stances set up to debate.

Judith is a child of the late '60s: Paris uprisings, anarchist cells and violent revolution. She may now deal in cultural theory and academic conferences in her position as Chair of Philosophy, but she is still, at heart, the young girl who journeyed to South America to help the revolution. She is accused of assisting her ex-husband in planting a bomb, a charge that at first feels absurd but as her inscrutable mask refuses to slip becomes more and more chillingly plausible.

Laurence Boswell directs with a careful eye for detail and draws strong performances from Niamh Cusack and Patrick Baladi. Cusack is excellent, portraying a woman who wears her intellectual prowess as a shield to any attack. She is a formidable foe, one who refuses to wilt as the pressure builds and the clock ticks closer to midnight, and she realises with dawning horror, that every moment of her and her family's life has been tracked by the state. Kehlmann never posits that this is justifiable in times of trouble or a horrifying breach of basic human rights. Instead, he seems to suggest that in times like these, there are no easy answers. Baladi is the physical embodiment of a rumpled state trying every tactic to get ahead: at one point he appears to make a move on her and is swiftly rejected, though is this a real attempt at intimacy or another attempt at checkmate?

There is plenty here to mull over but on stage it all feels undernourished. It's difficult to ascertain whether something was lost in translation or whether it suffers from some of that European seriousness that we Brits can never quite tune in on. The analogy about 'if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it still make a sound' is trotted out a number of times but whether we are meant to see this as an eye-rolling cliché or a moment of great philosophical depth is never properly answered. Similarly, the one moment that Judith wilts is based on the kind of premise that made me want to audibly shout 'oh come on' in my seat. Aren't we past the point where all successful women only want to be a mother and their failure to conceive is a weapon to use against them?

As the counter winds down, the tension does build, but overall its explosions are more a damp squib than a revolutionary call to arms. Like Christmas without turkey it lacks a vital component. Character goes missing for the sake of the idea and leaves the play floundering as a result.

Christmas Eve runs at the Ustinov Studio until 18 November.