Harry’s Christmas ★★★★

Stephen Smith performs Steven Berkoff’s damning and dark play on the corrosive effect of loneliness at Christmas

Actor Stephen Smith is fast becoming a Steven Berkoff specialist. The Recs loved his Dog / Actor double bill which he took to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. Harry’s Christmas, which is having a seasonal run at the King’s Head Theatre, is an altogether different and darker proposition.

Harry is nearly 40 and single and we find him four days from Christmas, counting the string of six Christmas cards he has received, depending on that “line in your lounge to prove you are loved”. Already dreading the approaching “festive” season alone again, he suggests that Christmas tells you your status in the world.

Photo by Bonnie Britain

This single-hander sees Harry trying to find some company or indeed any connection with people as Christmas Day fast approaches. Attempts to reach former loves and then distant friends, for any sort of human communion, fail. Worse he suffers the indignity of being put on video call to the 3 year-old-child at a children’s party while trying to reach a woman he used to know. She’s too busy to come to the phone.

Both the remarkable quality and the problematic issue with Harry’s Christmas is its unflinching look at the eviscerating effect of loneliness. With two days to go, Harry admits that he doesn’t normally care and he can cope. On Christmas Day itself, he attempts to convince himself of the lie that it’s “only a day like any other day”. In reality, we feel his sense of feeling lonely, unliked, uninteresting and, foregrounding the direction of travel, “unbeing”.

Stephen Smith is superb in charting every piece-by-piece erosion of Harry and his sense of worth. It’s a nuanced and painful portrayal of isolation at supposedly the most wonderful time of the year. As we go through the four days approaching Christmas Day, Smith’s Harry subtly lowers the character’s energy. It’s a perfect illustration that Harry’s hopes, that someone, anyone might call round or phone him, are fading. 

Scott Le Crass’s direction helps maintain the audience’s empathy for the character throughout even when Harry loses any love for himself. The production reflects the growing sense of isolation. At the start, there is a voice over that conveys Harry’s inner voice, trying to reason with himself and encourage him to take action to combat his loneliness. In the course of the play, the voice over becomes less prominent to the point where it disappears completely. Harry’s flat is silent and he is alone.
While Harry’s Christmas features the familiar Berkovian themes of religion and a loathing of television, its overriding theme is the need for human connection. There are lines of dialogue that cut through. “Am I not interesting enough?” he asks himself trying to work out why he is alone for yet another year. It’s a question that many of the people watching will have asked themselves at times of self doubt.
While it’s billed as a dark comedy, that does not quite touch the absolute bleakness of the piece. At 70 minutes, although brilliantly performed, is perhaps a tad too long for such darkness given the inexorable nature and desolation of the ending.
Before we recommend this play, we should insert an important caveat: if you are feeling emotionally vulnerable, please look at the show’s trigger warnings first. This production is in aid of  CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) and their website offers excellent support if you are feeling lonely. 
As a railing against the hypocrisy and selfishness of the modern commercial Christmas, it remains as pertinent now as it did when the play was first performed in 1985. It’s a powerful conscience-pricking reminder that not everyone will enjoy a jolly festive season. 

A compelling but brutal depiction of the darker side to Christmas★ four stars

Harry's Christmas Tickets

Harry's Christmas plays at The King's Head Theatre until 24 December 2022

Book Tickets