Nestled in the cosy confines of one of Manchester’s ancient armpits is 53two, a theatre in a railway arch offering an hour of festive transcendence to knackered shoppers and knackered everyone. These are grim times, and there’s a feeling in the air that this might be the last Christmas in which the West can stay peacefully shut off from all the madness it makes.
What better time to cast our minds back a hundred years to when grimmer folks than us toughed it through geopolitical meltdown, helped along perhaps by a momentary, magic hush, one winter’s night on the front line of a war.
‘The Christmas Truce’ is an adaptation of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem of the same name, engagingly framed within the living room of a family hunkering down to listen to the Queen’s speech after Christmas dinner in 1954. The war-veteran father’s enthusiastic rendition of the national anthem is played out comically but rings in the ear long enough to leave a retrospectively tragic impression, especially when he later breaks down in shell-shocked tears, reliving the deaths of countless brothers in arms.
This contradiction between the soothingly familiar and the unimaginably horrible threads its way throughout the play, always with a poignant poetic riff or lilting song, the latter held together beautifully by the multi-talented cast singing in both English and German.
The most hopeful moment of the night is given to a German rendition of silent night, which inspires cheers from the Tommies and kicks off a chain of events culminating in those famous football matches. The rug is then pulled from under us, obviously, as all these celebrations of shared humanity give way to mournful explorations of the experience of war, always strangely sheltered around the family hearth.
The Queen’s wireless wishes to bring about a world of goodwill are brought momentarily to life, only to falter as the soldiers fall again to fighting, obedient to those murderous orders sent by twisted old fools from ornate drawing rooms.
Some rumbles echo through the chamber as the players break down, and wondering whether it’s bombs dropping or trains rolling overhead, you’re back to the present day, hungry for that momentary precious peace in the midst of chaos and perhaps a bit better trained in its creation. Thankfully, the actors pull it all off with humour, charm and beauty so you can pull yourself together old boy, not long ‘til Christmas.
53two is across the road from the Briton’s Protection, where rum rations can be collected if you’re still feeling jingoistic afterwards. It’s on at 3pm and 7pm until Friday, so hurry.
The Christmas Truce is on at 53two theatre until Friday 23rd December. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
Images provided by 53two