Christmas is a time to indulge in tradition, otherwise known as doing something regularly just because someone did it once. So we go to our Christmas shows, we sing carols, we eat mince pies. For Jonny (Jonny Donahoe) and Rachel (Rachel Parris) and later Paddy (Paddy Gervers) in 30 Christmases, they drink prawn-nog and wear jumpers from the freezer. After all, ask the characters, who's to say that one tradition is more valid than another? But 30 Christmases goes beyond questioning tradition at Christmas. It also asks us why we do it at all, and what it can mean to people who don't have the means to engage in the capitalist dreamworld that the festive period has become.
In a similar way to previous work that Jonny Donahoe has been associated with (particularly the hilarious and exquisite exploration of living with depression, Every Brilliant Thing, which he has been performing on and off for the last 3 years), 30 Christmases plays a game with its audience, blurring the line between truth and fiction. It includes lovely moments of audience interaction and the fourth wall is never established; the cast react to the audience's responses all the way through. Moreover, it is difficult not to wonder how much of the story relates to the real lives of the actors, or if it might be a verbatim piece; there is something enticing in entertaining this idea that the people on the stage are telling their own story. Just the idea that this could be the case humanises the whole thing, and in the end, it doesn't really matter whether it is true or not, because the audience has been given enough to be drawn in. The show works on the idea that possibility of truth will encourage empathy, for the thousands of people whose experiences are at least similar to those portrayed on the stage.
The exploration of human behaviour and experience which characterises the show is deepened by its sporadic one-liners which ring incredibly true, reminding the audience that we are not all so different, even though our experiences may be. Jonny tells us at one point: "I remember it exactly because I've seen the photos" - 'I do that too!', exclaim the audience in their heads. In the midst of a piece which tells someone else's story, I am reminded that I have one of my one, and that the two inevitably share reference points. Indeed, these one-liners are part of the reason that, despite having the clear organising structure of the 30 Christmases which our main protagonists Jonny and Rachel have shared as brother and sister, the show is not linear and it does take a while to settle in to a rhythm. It jumps between a jagged and poignant story of two siblings and their childhood, pointed social(ist) commentary delivered with tongue firmly in cheek (something all three actors excel in), beautiful jazz clarinet and random comedy songs ('Reindeer Sex' comes to mind) in a way that means you just have to trust them and get on board. Which, as mentioned, is exactly the point. The audience are not allowed to simply watch but encouraged to feel.
This is why the piece works so well as the in-house show of the Old Fire Station, who work so hard in their joint mission of showcasing risk-taking, entertaining performance and artwork, and working with the homelessness charity Crisis. This performance revolves around the story of people who don't have everything. Admittedly, sometimes this does feels a little bit forced and the 'Marxist Dad' thread perhaps unnecessarily pushes the narrative further from relatability. Generally though, it can only be a good thing to celebrate Christmas for what it signifies to people who just can't engage in the capitalism which surrounds it.
So in the season of messages and meaning, what is the message of 30 Christmases? The final song tells us that the message is 'Don't be a prick at Christmas'. There are more messages though, like: look around you and see if there are people who need love or who are offering you love. Love might not come in a stocking or a tin, but it also might. There's no point in throwing the baby out with the bath water, just because the commercialism of Christmas is hard to avoid. As individuals and as a community, there is something to be gained from organised fun, shared experiences, and tradition. So go and let Jonny, Rachel and Paddy share their story with you.