Theater Review: ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’

The warm return of an old friend
December 8, 2015 8:24 pm Last Updated: December 13, 2015 1:42 pm

NEW YORK—The quintessential old-fashioned English Christmas never really existed until Charles Dickens wrote about it in “A Christmas Carol,” and Santa Claus was never round and jolly until Coca-Cola featured him that way in an advertising campaign. Yet both creations have long become part and parcel of the public consciousness. The same is true with Dylan Thomas’s joyfully nostalgic “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

The perennial (if not always annual) holiday treat is presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre, now at its temporary space near Union Square. Though Thomas had written parts of the story earlier, it was originally written as a radio play in 1952 and draws upon his boyhood memories of Christmas.

What makes the production so appealing is its quiet and elegant simplicity.

Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep’s artistic director, winningly adapted and directed the scenarios presented. Whether completely true, made up, or romanticized and falling somewhere in between, the show charmingly presents the Christmas we all wish we could have experienced at least once in our lives.

With a warm and inviting set, complete with trees, a crackling fireplace, a wreath, and stockings hung over the hearth, the stage is set for a trip down memory lane that is sure to reawaken thoughts of one’s own childhood.

What makes the production so appealing is its quiet and elegant simplicity. We are drawn almost unconsciously into the tale.

The cast members (Jacque Carnahan, John Cullum, Katie Fabel, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, and Ashley Robinson) speak Thomas’s words, sing Christmas carols, and create an atmosphere in which it seems as if they are each sharing their own particular memories. All the while the others nod in quiet remembrances of their own or interject their individual Christmas recollections.

The cast of "A Child's Christmas in Wales," (L–R) Katie Fabel, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, John Cullum, Ashley Robinson, Jacque Carnahan and music director Mark Hartman (behind). (Carol Rosegg)
The cast of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” (L–R) Katie Fabel, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, John Cullum, Ashley Robinson, Jacque Carnahan, and music director Mark Hartman (behind). (Carol Rosegg)

Among the images recalled is a child vowing to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve before he inevitably slips into dreamland. He then wakes up to find it’s Christmas morning and runs outside to play.

Then there’s the opening of “useless presents” (clothing and other quite functional items, but none as thrilling as toys) and meeting those idiosyncratic family members to be avoided (such as the one who drinks, the one who complains, and the one who just has to pinch cheeks and never remembers that the child is not a baby anymore).

Ironically, as we age, some family members cease to be objects of ridicule and become objects of pity. These are people who have nothing left in their lives but these family get-togethers. Indeed, the story makes mention of “some few small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen, nor anywhere else for that matter, sitting on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.”

It’s a testament to Thomas’s writing that many of the scenarios presented can be seen as comical in one light and a bit tragic in another.

One of the most striking things about “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is that no matter how many times we may see it, we can always find something different in its telling.

John Cullum in "A Child's Christmas in Wales." (Carol Rosegg)
John Cullum in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” (Carol Rosegg)

This time I found myself focusing on the lyrical intonations of Thomas’s words. They conjured up such images as snow-laden streets, a dark and foreboding house, a quiet park, which becomes an adventure land for those brave enough to venture into it, and the swirling streams of smoke caused by two men puffing on their pipes as they trudged past.

All of these images are spoken in the voices of adults recalling a time, not always that long ago, when the world was magical and not as harsh as it is today—a truism for people of any era. Though even the children in Thomas’s tale have a scare or two before Christmas day is over.

Another strong element of the production is the relatively seamless way the songs are interspersed with the dialogue. We are treated to such classics as “Deck the Halls,” “Good Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” and a wonderful medley that includes “I Saw Three Ships” and “The Holly and The Ivy” mixed in with tunes written by Moore.

These newer songs include “Take My Hand, Tomorrow’s Christmas,” and “Open Your Eyes”—one would be hard-pressed to listen to the latter and not become teary-eyed. Another enjoyable tune is “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” a satirical salute to all those inedible dishes that someone made with love, but which others would do anything to avoid.

Musical director Mark Hartman provides excellent accompaniment on the piano and tosses in an occasional comment or observation when appropriate.

Whether you have Christmas memories akin to the ones depicted here or if you’ve never had anything close to them, but wish you did, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is the show for you. It never fails to warm the heart and allows you to forget, at least for a little while, the tribulations that all too often come with the season and lose yourself in the possibilities of what it could be.

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales”
The Irish Repertory Theatre
The DR2 Theatre
103 E. 15th St. in Union Square
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or IrishRep.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Jan. 3, 2016

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.