Niamh Cusack and Patrick Baladi star in German playwright Daniel Kehlman’s Christmas Eve, directed by Laurence Boswell and translated by Christopher Hampton; the same pair having worked together on Kehlman’s The Mentor which also premièred at the Ustinov earlier this year prior to a West End transfer.
While The Mentor possessed a philosophical drollness, this work has flavours of Kafka, Orwell and Hitchcock, but without nearly so much tension or suspense. Tim Shortall’s set is sufficiently claustrophobic, however, and the clock on the wall, if a rather obvious prop, is a constant reminder of the possibility that a bomb will go off at midnight on Christmas Eve 2017 – or you might just find yourself counting down the minutes until the play ends.
Judith, played by the highly engaging Cusack, is a philosophy professor whose political views have made her a point of interest to the anti-terrorism arm of the police. Bundled into a car on her way to her parents’ for Christmas, with no explanation as to the meaning of such action, and without her rights being read, she is as apparently mystified as the audience as to what is going on. Her ex-husband is in the adjacent cell (we don’t see him) and Baladi who plays the interrogator informs her that they have been watching them both for some time.
He is certainly surprisingly laid back for someone who has under an hour to unravel and prevent a terror plot that might kill innocent people, or is he just using the so-say threat to society as a means of holding Judith in contravention of her civil rights? What is interesting about this play is not whether or not the bomb will go off, but the fact that Judith and her ex are now the prime suspects in a crime that hasn’t yet been committed; highlighting all sorts of topical questions about security in the present day, and how terrorism may just be a welcome excuse for governments to spy on us and take our freedoms away. Either way, this play is utterly reliant upon your interest being great enough to make you want to unravel the truth.
Kehlman teases us with inconsistencies of tone, for whilst there is attempted humour at the top and tail, laughs are absent for the majority of the time, despite which the interrogation remains alarmingly relaxed, even flirtatious. Baladi, who plays the role rather like Ricky Gervais in The Office (ironic considering he starred in the show), tries to disconcert her with his incredible knowledge of her past and present life, personal and professional, yet he is never truly menacing and therefore the atmosphere is equally lacklustre.
It’s fair to say that Cusack brings colour and diversity to an otherwise grey evening of theatre, not least when her character runs rings around the interrogator intellectually and ridicules his love of clichés; yet the inclusion of them doesn’t necessarily do the play any favours, nor do his pathetic attempts at philosophising. Perhaps it was just lost in translation. I’d like to say I didn’t see the ‘twist’ at the end coming, but surely it was all too obvious?
Christmas Eve at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio until 18th November 2017. Approximately 75 minutes with no interval. Production images by Simmon Annand. For more information and tickets please visit the website.