A man, a stage and a melancholy monologue – Dirty Protest Theatre’s Last Christmas is some distance removed from the glitzy, gaudy, showbizzy fairy tales found elsewhere on Scotland’s stages during the festive period. In all manners but one, that is: it’s a simple tale everyone will immediately get – one of life, death, family, friends, work and love.
Despite the title and the seasonal entrance music, the Christmas setting is almost incidental to the basic homecoming premise. Our protagonist Tom (Sion Pritchard) is a Welshman who has “escaped” Swansea for a life in London. His folks are proud, his friends envious of his progress, even though this new life has little to commend it – a soul-sucking office job, limited prospects, dreadful colleagues. A return home for Christmas reconnects him to his roots, and helps him find perspective on the recent death of his father and the bombshell his partner dumped on him minutes before his train home.
The initial passages are watchable enough, although they do tread familiar office party territory. We’re introduced to a try-hard, ladder-climbing female colleague and a wannabe gangsta mate by means of a forced-festive-fun-in-the-workplace scenario. Beers are swigged by the water cooler, interns seduced by the photocopier, all to Tom’s general disillusionment. Our man’s home life is similarly textbook – the textbook being Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It’s a case of squabbles with a partner that won’t let him retreat into his man cave, especially when she has something to tell him…
The show really comes to life once we reach Swansea, a case of a little local flavour making all the difference, providing a distinctiveness to the material that was previously absent. The characters we encounter here – Bins, Lanky and Spanner – feel realer for inhabiting a less broadly drawn environment. The show’s best moments come from a beery Christmas Eve with them in a sticky-floored boozer. There’s no sound effects of glasses smashing, no flashing mobile disco lights, but there doesn’t need to be – writer Matthew Bulgo’s words do all the work. Again, the cooking lager and lairiness mean it could be smalltown anywhere, but the pub names, the accents, the banter ground it in South Wales, and this palpable narrowing of focus from the everyman office woes of London, counter-intuitively increases engagement with the material.
And so to the piece’s emotional heart – Tom’s return to the family home for the first time since his father’s death. The mother and son bonding is well-judged and allows for a rounded, gentle conclusion. Tom’s journey back is, we’re left hoping, an emotional journey forward for him. It becomes possible, finally, to connect with the average office bod we first encountered. This sparse hour of one-man Fringe theatre might not feel very Christmassy, but by the end, you can only wish its central character peace and goodwill.