Criterion Theatre turns up the heat in Festive Spirit

CHRISTMAS nostalgia hits in about July, before the reality of buying presents and enduring endless small talk with uncle Bob hits and you realise the festive season might not be all it's cracked up to be.

The Criterion's latest production is an ode to every dysfunctional family's Christmas mayhem which is bound to ensue each and every year.

Festive Spirit, written by award-winning Newcastle playwright Sally Davies and directed by Mareia Cowper is the culmination of just enough reality and absurdity to be the perfect combination of funny, relateable and clever.

The play delves into the lives and lounge room of a typical Aussie family celebrating Christmas with all the joys and pitfalls that comes along with it.

Maud (Rhonny Mackenzie) opens a surprising gift from Tom (Joe Endean).
Maud (Rhonny Mackenzie) opens a surprising gift from Tom (Joe Endean). Kathryn Lewis

Festive Spirit is Sally Davies' first full-length play after having 15 short plays staged in more than 20 festivals worldwide. She wrote her inaugural play, The Wanted Man, for the first Newcastle Short+Sweet Festival in 2010.

"I'd never written a play before, I'd only ever seen one but I'd always love to write. I'd seen this competition and thought I'll have a go," she said.

"My short play got picked and performed and I discovered this whole new magnificent and magical world."

Since that life-changing moment, the solicitor by day "thinks in dialogue" and was inspired to sit down and write the play she had been toying with for years, over Christmas 2014.

"Every day I had to write a 1000 words. It's the first time I'd been so focused on my writing. I poured everything into this one play," she said.

After three weeks of writing Ms Davies had created a play inspired from snippets of her own life experience.

"Christmas is such great fodder for comedic elements and to get characters into a room, that may not be best friends the rest of the year," she said.

"There are elements from people I know or have met. Real life is such a great thing to draw on."

Ms Davies said she approached the play in a similar way to her short plays by creating small scenes then bridging each element together.


Jeremy (Lachlan Scott) proposes in an unexpected way to Belinda (Eva Miller).
CHRISTMAS FEAR: Jeremy (Lachlan Scott) proposes in an unexpected way to Belinda (Eva Miller). Kathryn Lewis

"The cast have been able to put their own spin on it which is what my goal always is when writing," she said.

"I think it's important the actors are given that freedom. I want it anchored in reality but it's important to me that actors feel comfortable.

"There's nothing more jarring for an audience than someone being uncomfortable on stage."

Ms Davies will be visiting Grafton next weekend to see her play in action for the second time, after a 2016 production in Newcastle.

Director Ms Cowper said the cast and crew were honoured to have Ms Davies in the audience.

It took quite the Miss Marple rendition for Ms Cowper to track down Ms Davies, but was worth the month-long investigation.

"Mareia had seen an article about the play and contacted the theatre company that initially produced it," she said.

The two-act play has all the Christmas traditions, the turkey's stuffed, the presents are wrapped, the extended family are descending like a swarm of locusts on Bob (James Patterson) and Jenny's (Linda Maher) home for dinner with the same family members and their companions coming to their house every year.


CHRISTMAS FEAR: The cast rehearse for the Criterion's upcoming production of Festive Spirit.
The cast rehearse for the Criterion's upcoming production of Festive Spirit. Contributed

Jenny spends her time in the kitchen, in between trying to juggle family harmony.

Bob spars with sister-in-law Debborah (Karla Hubbard) who readily consumes the red wine and as a last resort the cooking sherry while offending people with her opinions. Tom (Joe Endean), who is Jenny's brother and Debborah's husband, hides in the garage, tinkering with a car.

Jenny and Bob's eldest daughter, Melissa (Rachel Schuhmacher), has trouble attracting the right sort of men, while her younger sister Belinda (Eva Miller), has brought her partner of 12 months, Jeremy (Lachlan Scott), who is trying to hide his surprise gift for Belinda.

The last regular party member, Joyce (Kim McBeath), the mother of Jenny and Tom, their Grandma has wax in her ears and misunderstands what others are saying and may be trying to find a husband.

The celebrants also receive visits from next-door neighbours, Frank (Ken Mackenzie) and Maud (Rhonny Mackenzie), whose personalities aren't what anyone should have to endure at Christmas.

Then Andy the fireman (Bill North) turns up but the guests aren't sure if he is there to put fires out or start one.

The show runs from tonight (preview night); Friday, July 19 (opening night); Saturday, July 20 at 7.30pm. Matinee on Sunday, July 21 at 2pm. The following weekend Friday, July 26 and Saturday, July 27 at 7.30pm. Final matinee on Sunday, July 28 at 2pm. Tickets are available online at Sticky Tickets or at Buckley's Music Group Grafton. Follow the Criterion Theatre Grafton on Facebook for current show information and upcoming auditions.