“This is the only reason I look forward to Christmas Day”
Those looking for a little counterintuitive Christmas theatre programming could do worse than head over to Turnham Green where a middle class Christmas Day dinner descends into a cross between Abigail’s Party and The Hunger Games. Greg A Smith’s Sheltered is a spikily amusing play about “the homeless and the heartless” and delivers its twists and turns with skill in Stuart Watson’s production for Against the Grain at the Tabard Theatre.
From the outset, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be your traditional Christmas Day as would-be YouTube celebrity Jenna sets up a hidden camera in anticipation of some major pranking, and her parents Tamsin and Harry welcome in their special guest – a homeless guy called Rory, the fifth such person they’ve invited in in what has become an annual tradition, goodwill to all men indeed. As the goose roasts, the parsnips get honeyed and the party games come out, the atmosphere becomes increasingly charged and we soon find out why.
The arrival of neighbours Donald and Marissa, with their own special guest, changes the dynamic completely and any thoughts of altruism disappear like Santa up the chimney. For Mike Duran’s Harry considers Simon Mitelman’s Donald his arch-nemesis and the games they love to play are a horrendous step up from Trivial Pursuit. Mitelman’s forthright nastiness hits hard but Duran nails Harry’s insidious need not to be considered a monster.
As the homeless and seemingly impossibly erudite Rory, Michael Longhi manages the not inconsiderable feat of making a rounded character out of a construction that sometimes feels just a little bit too good to be true, Jim Mannering’s wiry Den full of explosive energy feels more convincing here. And as Donald’s emotionally bruised wife Marissa, Sarah Hannah unspools wonderfully, a growing confidence aided by large quantities of gin.
Nikki Squire’s Tamsin and Phoebe Batteson-Brown’s Jenna, the mother and daughter of the house, fare slightly less well due to the way the story unfolds. The narrative depends on a certain level of passiveness from these two, one which is never quite explained enough as Watson’s production gradually errs away from Ridley-esque fantastical horror to more Ayckbourn-like social tragedy, though both do deliver convincing and characterful performances.