When the best thing about a play is its soundtrack, ordinarily a director ought to be worried. Fortunately, there is little shame in this given that the backdrop to Christmas is Miles Away is the Stone Roses’ first album, making this a nostalgic, if over-long trip down Memory Lane for us thirtysomethings. Unfortunately, there is rather too much looking back in anger to make this a truly enjoyable night out.
The play is set in Manchester between 1989 and 1991 and follows the growing pains of two teenagers, Christie (David Judge) and Luke (Paul Stocker), transiting unwillingly into the world of adulthood. The stark choices facing youth then (and to some extent now) were unemployment (or “joining a band” as it was then known) or the Army. Christie chooses the former and becomes an art student, while Luke chooses the latter.
Meanwhile, there is an added complication in Julie (Georgia Taylor) as Christie’s girlfriend who unwittingly drives a wedge between the two, forever sundering the boys’ lives together as “best mates”.
Chloe Moss’s third play, which debuted at the Royal Exchange, Manchester last year, certainly captures the inarticulacy of the late-teenage years. The characters struggle to crystallise their thoughts as they wrestle with the spectre of growing-up, and leaving behind the heady days of summers camping at the local lake. There is a strong sense of all this being out of the control of the protagonists – almost against their will – as they realise the decisions they are making spontaneously are undermining the very basis that their friendship was based on. In other words, they’re becoming adults.
The play suffers, however, from the specificity of its time and place. Why does a tale so universal need to be so rooted in the past, albeit recent? There is a scene in the play which reminds me of that timeless film classic of growing-up, Gregory’s Girl, where two of the characters lie back on the ground and feel like they might fly off of the world at any point. Gregory’s Girl may look dated but will never age. Christmas will only feel contemporary to those who were “there, then”.
Perhaps this is Moss’s point – but for me this lessens its potential impact. There is another sense in which it is already a museum piece, since how many teenagers are so ready to grow up and leave home nowadays? Strangely, though, the fact that once the characters have made their choices, they are hard-pushed to see them through and stand by them, feels very 2006. It also leaves us with a sense of despair at the end as the boys are left with neither their childhood dreams nor anything new to replace them.
Beyond the problems with the writing and the way the play drags, I also found myself growing tired of Judge’s mannered, pouty performance as Christie. On the other hand, Stocker is brilliant as Luke, perfectly portraying the awkwardness he feels without overdoing it – there’s a touch of the Brando about him. And Taylor, as Julie, adds a plain-girl charm to the mix, but she hardly seems worth the boys fighting over, sadly.
While there is much to admire about the way Christmas handles its subject matter, it remains miles away from being all that good or memorable a play.