Christmas shows are for families and kids, right? Not entirely. While it’s fair to say that cheery festive tales suitable for everyone from toddlers to Great Grandpa Jack flood the market in December, there are always a few shows aimed squarely at grown-ups. Thirty Christmases, which stars comedian Rachel Parris, is one of those.
By adult, we don’t mean that it’s all rude jokes and not-so-subtle innuendo. No, it’s a story that, though full of fun and music, tackles genuine grown-up themes. In Thirty Christmases’ case, that’s family and life without a father.
Jonny and Rachel haven’t seen their father since Christmas Eve 17 years before. They haven’t had a good Christmas in ages. But this year they’re determined to get it right.
Rachel Parris tells us more:
How would you describe Thirty Christmases?
A joyful, heartfelt, funny, musical show about when Christmas is difficult. With added eggnog and the odd swear word.
Why did you want to appear in it?
Because it’s unusual to find a show that is funny, musical AND also has an important message and emotional content in it. It’s a bit of a dream for an actor/muso/comedian!
How would you describe your character?
My character has had a tough childhood, and never really had a proper home. Her brother is all she’s ever had. She tries very hard to make her life as “normal” and stable as she can. She can seem hard, but I see her as having to be the realistic one, whether she likes it or not. With a dreamer as a brother, she has had to be the one facing up to things honestly.
How are you feeling about performing at The New Diorama Theatre?
I can’t wait to get bedded in! I always love the feeling of having a “home” when you do a play (which is very in keeping with the theme of the show). They are so great in their support for emerging theatre companies, so we are delighted to work with them.
You’re possibly better known for improv and stand-up work. How does appearing in a scripted play compare?
It makes a nice change! I love improv and doing my own material in stand-up but I did straight acting before any of that. It’s quite a treat to return to having a script, blocking and a director.
What has surprised you most during rehearsals?
I’ve been surprised how much I find myself defending and empathising with my character, even though we have little in common in terms of backstory. I can get quite fierce about how I should portray her and very much have her back! I don’t think Jonny expected me to get so opinionated and personal about it!
What was your first experience of theatre?
I suppose at primary school, doing Christmas plays (obviously coming full circle here). We did those from age five and I always loved doing them. I was always surprised at other kids not being very into it. I just assumed everyone must love being on stage. When I was a bit older I remember my mum and dad taking me to see a musical at the Leicester Haymarket and it was magical.
Why is live performance so special?
I’ve thought about this a lot, because I do such a mix of different live things. You might think that, between improv, scripted drama, musicals and stand-up, there would be a world of difference when it comes to the live experience. But there’s not really. It’s still about the whole experience. Yes, it’s about seeing something unique happen onstage (even if the script is the same), but it’s also about sharing that with an audience, being part of an event, an essential part. It’s not passive, like watching TV; a performer feeds off the audience, I think. That’s definitely true of comedy and improv. For my part, it’s also true when acting. As part of a live audience, you’re contributing.
Apart from The New Diorama Theatre, what’s your favourite London theatre?
Wilton’s Music Hall. I’ve done the 50 Hour Improvathon there and also Austentatious. It’s the most stunning, evocative venue in London. It’s like stepping back in time. I mean, having created Austentatious, you might get a sense that I really like stepping back in time!
What one piece of advice would you give aspiring performers?
I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I’ve found it very useful to find my own niche. Simply being an actor, or a performer, is very broad. When I was younger I thought I could do everything. Then, years later, when I sharpened my focus a little, I started getting (and creating) regular work. My strengths are in improvisation, music and comedy. Someone else’s might be in devising, physical theatre, Shakespeare or modern dance. But whatever it is, find what you’ve got to offer that many other people cannot. Then get even better at it. Then offer it up.
What’s your top tip for a trip to the theatre?
Get there early for a drink at the bar. And take a bottle of water – no one wants to be the cougher!