Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas
  Ali White and Alan McKee in 'Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas'.
Photo: Johnny Frazer

Try and ponder what might happen if the scariness of a holiday season rested not in ghoulies and ghosties being real after all, or even in the burden one carries from the level of preparation that goes into making sure everything works out, but in tales of the unexpected where thoughtful revelations and re-evaluations can turn lives on their heads and not necessarily for the better.

Those are at the core of Conor Grimes and Alan McKee's Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas, directed by Frankie McCafferty – a well-structured, musically appealing, frequently chuckle-worthy and sometimes hilarious piece where plot is prominent but certainly not at the expense of the good times to be had when watching this play in Belfast's Lyric Theatre.

Class, or lack of it, dominates the production as Grimes, McKee, Ali White, Nicky Harley and musician Frankie McIlvanna come together for a multi-character playing exercise in Darkwood Manor, a stately home represented in a fine piece of minimalist set design from Stuart Marshall. Christmas is supposedly a time for giving and sharing, but in the eyes of Toby Darkwood (McKee) and his wife-to-be Nancy Nugent (White) it is a time for taking and hiding. Individual desires and manipulation take clear and distasteful precedence over the familial in Toby's bid to attain the greatest possible value both from inheritance and the artefacts around the home of his elderly Aunt Alice. On the sidelines of this plot (of land and show) are the caretaker McKillop (Grimes), Alice's carer Ciara (Harley) and the mute Butler (McIlvanna) all of whom will find various ways of integrating with and possibly intervening in the proceedings, much to our amusement and intrigue.

Alan McKee, Conor Grimes and Nicky Harley in 'Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas'.
Photo: Johnny Frazer

What might have descended into a mere skeletal framework on which a succession of sketches are built instead evolves into something murkier and more complicated. Yes, the play is often funny, but the way in which Grimes, McKee and the cast have brought out the unsettling underbelly within, helped by striking costuming from Niamh Mockford and Sandy Cuthbert's sparse-but-effective choreography, leaves a real lasting impression on top of the laughter. The characters acting out scenes from Forrest Gump, for example, may seem like padding, but it's every bit an instance of reshaping favourable elements from the past to suit temporary needs - not unlike, as we find, Toby and Nancy are doing with their separate histories.

Nancy's history and present are fascinating on their own terms, and in expressing their effects, Ali White commands the stage in one of the season's best performances. A pseudo-sleuth whose name alone echoes the teenage amateur Nancy Drew, White's Nancy successfully appears as both a professional psychic and a ghost hunter to those who are in awe of her public image but haven't, until now, seen how she can crumble in the face of not getting her way. Except we're about to, therefore unveiling a transitional portrayal of playing pretend which echoes another film starring Tom Hanks, Catch Me If You Can - where the figure at the centre of the story finds they're not as good as pretending as they thought they were.

And, without spoiling too much, the whole play is a literal exercise in pretending for many a character as well as every actor, the kind that keeps both the accomplished performers we see and audience members on their toes in the name of being entertained. It's both easy to surrender oneself to the lighter aspects of Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas and very enjoyable to engage with its more heavyweight ones, all in a feast of fun that should please both fans of Grimes & McKee along with audiences in general.

Simon Fallaha

Have Yourself A Scary Little Christmas runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday January 6, 2024. For more information, and tickets, click here.