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The Guild Theatre: An O'Henry Christmas - Review by Faith Jessel

You may think that performing a play with ‘Christmas’ in the title is an unusual choice for February, but An O'Henry Christmas is so much more than a traditional story about the customary joys of this festive season. 

Directed with restraint and moments of charming whimsy by The Guild stalwart Bill Ayers, it is an illustration of the power of storytelling and how it inevitably transforms us. Throughout the evening, a rekindling of the human spirit occurs. Christmas is merely the impetus.

Set in New York in 1893 during the depression and the harshest of times, a ragtag assortment of misfits congregate beneath a rusting railway bridge to support one another in their fragmented states. Many themes of how it is to live in extreme poverty  are explored, but none so more so than what it is to hope when reality is determined to make you forget how. 

The title character of O’Henry, played by Gary Clark with dulcet oration, “big words’ and a distinct touch of circus master PT  Barnum, was actually the pen name of real life prolific story writer William Sydney Porter. He spins his tales in payment for his place by the fire while dodging the local law enforcement. After recruiting his motley cast, O'Henry brings to life some of his famous short stories, including The Gift of the Magi. He offers the gift of escape into the magical world of imagination and a way for these lonely creatures to make sense of the world. Clark interprets O’Henry as an observer, slightly aloof from the antics but nonetheless bringing warmth to a cold, hard night. 

Sometimes living on the edge forces you to know what you are living for. No more so than with Agnes, a steely but tender-hearted former farm girl, portrayed by Yolanda Regueira. Agnes is the mother and glue of the group and she lives with a fiercely  undimmed optimism because she innately understands that to give up hope is to give up everything. 

Neilson Brown as Grover, the doctor, stands in defiant opposition. He refuses to see hope, having placed himself in self inflicted purgatory. He can't bear to look backwards or forwards, while hating where he is. It is a mystery what happened to make him fall so far to homelessness, but we feel his self loathing as it battles with glimpses of the kind and clever man he once was.

Plucky pickpocket Fran, played with cheeky verve by Maria Micallef, survives through denial and razor sharp wit. Born on the streets, she is ignorant of any other way to live, which makes her equally tough but tragic. Micallef radiates the light inside Fran that refuses to be darkened and her cheery disposition brings much needed levity to her situation and the events. 

Melissa Gosling-Smith plays Marguerite the invalid, and her role is to be the audience of the evening. She spends all of her performance lying down, delighting in the play acting, but watchful of the symbolic leaves of a straggly vine tree clinging to life. She’s gravely ill,  and must find something to live for. Gosling-Smith draws our compassion for her sad plight. This is a character who has had her life destroyed but has still miraculously maintained her gentleness. 

Akshay Bharde as The Drunk, Hal, masks his pain in the bottle and behind the facade of a perpetual joker. If he laughs he doesn't have to think or reflect. He fears that facing his flaws won’t make things better, just more bitter. With a wide grin, Bharde is genial and at times boyish, relishing the comedic hijinks as night advances. 

It could be argued, Dinty the artist, played by Vince Melton, has the most difficult struggle of all. He wants to see and paint beauty but has no inspiration in his surroundings or humanity, falling deeper into despair. Melton doesn't hold back with his anger, which beautifully contrasts with Dinty’s ultimate act of love and this is one of the most poignant moments of the evening. 

Alex Hons as Guido, a regular copper on his beat, represents society's privilege of being able to merely witness the adversity of the down and out and dehumanised from behind the safety of our homes, opportunities and pay packet. Guido wants to be kind, but he blindly follows orders and so disconnects from the common thread of what it is to be fully human.  

An O'Henry Christmas transcends what we know of a Christmas season message, and like all great stories, it is actually one for a lifetime. It presents the challenges of what it is to be brave enough to renew through adversity and how to recognise yourself in others, especially the marginalised. You’ll walk away knowing why meaning cannot be found in possessions, status or power and that love and hope, ultimately conquers all.   

3 and half vagabond tales out of 5

An O'Henry Christmas plays at the Guild theatre Rockdale until March 17th.

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