“If everyone is out looking for a myth, how can they find reality?” This sentence occurs towards the end of Christopher James’ new play at the Courtyard. On the surface, it seems to be nothing more than a succinct analysis of the plot (and James shows some skill in these aphoristic statements). I would argue though that its insight penetrates deeper and actually provides us with a key to the life of all the characters in the play.
On the one hand there are Felicity (Muireann Ryan) and her cousin Christian (Simon Desborough). Both are living in a housing estate in the East End, the squalor of which has been newly highlighted by the 2012 Olympic village a few yards away. Christian is a disillusioned solider recently returned from some desert war. In order to cope with his disappointment, he has created his own personal enemy: the government is not to be trusted, all immigrants should be kicked out of the UK, so that the ‘real’ English people finally receive what is their due. In contrast, Felicity is ready to believe in the hope of a better future that the Games promise. Her son Billy, a fifteen year old boxing champion, has just been admitted to the team. Through him, she can dream of success, a fair reward for her untiring care for Christian’s bed-ridden mother.
On the other hand we encounter Ismail (Lowell Baricanosa) and his wife Anna (Linda Lowell). He is a Muslim policeman, she a news reporter from Bosnia. Both are trying to assimilate into the British culture they so admire. Unfortunately the play’s development reveals that Ismail and Anna have invested themselves into a constructed version of reality – like Felicity and Christian; maybe like all of us. Their house of cards is going to collapse all too soon.
Director Dominic Kelly and the actors tell these stories in a remarkably relaxed state though nonetheless charged with energy. Strange though it may sound, it is rare to see actors having fun on stage (no matter how serious the topic). It is this sense of enjoyment that allows the performers of The Day They Banned Christmas to retain a calm, focused, and recommendable unsensational way of storytelling even when the events become more drastic.
These darker and more ruthless energies burst into the play in the form of a bomb, exploding in the Olympic Stadium and killing 40 people – amongst them Felicity’s son Billy. It is in these moments that Muireann Ryan displays the true brilliance of her emotional scale: she encapsulates the total shock and confusion in her distracted singing of Genesis songs, her nervous fingering of the brown paper bag holding the leftovers of Billy’s possessions. The effect is both tender and unsettlingly funny.
Ryan’s ability to create an extremely touching scene is even more remarkable when considering that the explosion itself is curiously ineffective. It is depicted only through a woefully inadequate recorded sound effect, but fails to really penetrate into the world of the play. Katie Lias’ stage design, dominated by a central fragmented wall, made me hope for a complete confusion of the play’s world somewhat like in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Instead, the explosion takes place in another dimension. It is possible that this complete separation of the blast and the situation on stage is intended – a vague strangeness of the sound, as if it were coming from under water hints at this – but since this is not fully realised, it failed to make a palpable impression.
Since the bomb was allegedly planted by Al-Quaeda, violence against the Muslim population in Britain increases so drastically that the government creates specific ‘zones’ for their protection – zones that sound suspiciously like ghettos. Following several instances of harassment, Anna and Ismail have to move to the former Olympic Village, which has been converted into one of these walled-in districts. After the first encounter of the four characters in the hospital following the bombing, Anna and Felicity’s lives cross one more time when Felicity invades Anna’s new flat in her quest for revenge against the Muslims whom she holds responsible for her son’s death.
I do not want to give away the final twist of the story. Suffice it to say that the two men also meet one more time in a direct face-off. However, the information revealed in this confrontation is ultimately too contrived. Overall, the play is a well-crafted piece of storytelling, but the ending is just too neat to do justice to the chaos of racial hatred, bigotry, and distrust raised throughout the evening. What could have been a truly unsettling story turns into one of many conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, The Day They Banned Christmas remains a powerful play with a consistently strong cast – certainly a theatrical event it deserves more attention than it has received so far!
The Day They Banned Christmas is on at the Courtyard Theatre until November the 9th.
Top image: Muireann Ryan in The Day They Banned Christmas at the Courtyard Theatre. Photo by Cameron McNee.
Bottom image: Lowell Baricanosa in The Day They Banned Christmas at the Courtyard Theatre. Photo by Cameron McNee.