Mike Bartlett — one of the U.K.’s busiest scribes with TV series to his name including “Doctor Foster – A Woman Scorned,” “Press,” and “Sticks and Stones” — has not forsaken theater where he began. He cemented his reputation in London and on Broadway with his royal-roasting “King Charles III” but he’s at his best on smaller, tauter canvases, with small-cast plays such as “Cock.” After a regional tryout last year, his latest, “Snowflake,” now at the Kiln Theatre in London, joins the latter group. A Christmas drama with a difference, it’s startlingly relatable for anyone who has had parents.
Forty-eight-year-old Andy (Elliot Levey) is waiting for his grown-up daughter to turn up. That’s fairly standard parental activity, but in this case the wait has been particularly long: Three years, to be precise, since Maya walked out on him, her widowed father, and since which time there has been no contact but Alan’s unanswered phone messages. Now they’re due to meet this Christmas Eve on neutral territory, a tired, local church hall which he has covered with homecoming decorations.
“Christmas… That’s when they say people come home…” he says, in an attempt to buoy himself. But as he talks his way through the waiting, we begin to realize that not only might Maya (Ellen Robertson) not be coming, but that Andy is an unreliable narrator of his own feelings. He has precise memories of what he believes happened, but his perspective on his behavior is partial is every sense.
In fact, virtually the entire first act is a monologue in which Andy argues with himself. He provides the necessary exposition, cunningly constructed by Bartlett as a private war between self-recrimination and denial. Those twin states create tension that is ideally balanced thanks to the remarkable clarity of Levey’s relaxed, affectingly unsentimental performance of a man who is anything but relaxed.
And then, suddenly, the door opens. Expectations rocket — this is a drama predicated on hope — but immediately we discover that it’s not Maya. Curtain.
The increasingly engrossing second half unravels everything we’ve heard, as a 25-year-old stranger Natalie (nicely self-satisfied Amber James) randomly, then intently, interrogates Andy, who gradually gives way. Rather than dismissing her fixed ideology as the typical folly of her generation, he begins to listen.
Although we discover the springboard for Maya’s vanishing was the Brexit vote, Bartlett is scarcely interested in the issues for and against. Mercifully, his focus is the wider, wholly contemporary inability of people on differing sides of a debate even to countenance hearing one another, let alone actually listening. That, and the younger generations’s readiness to take offense and assume victimhood.
But just as the chill of their generational antipathy begins to thaw, Andy smells a rat which reveals a further plot twist that turns everything on its head. The contrivance in the writing is undeniable, but audiences forgive it because of the authenticity of the emotions that the passionate third act properly earns. Confrontations are fired up with plausibly deep-seated anger and Alan, to the consternation of everyone onstage and the painful pleasure of the audience, consistently says the wrong things. The effect is equally funny and agonizing.
The awkward construction is more than covered by the deftness of Clare Lizzimore’s beautifully paced direction. She ensures that Bartlett’s dialogue, especially in the outbreaks of rage, feel fully lived-in. All three performances are perfectly mapped on to their characters and their individual difficulties with themselves.
Best of all, Bartlett ultimately challenges the all-too-easy leaning towards disaffection and dystopia. Neatly flirting with but skirting holiday-season sentimentality, “Snowflake” uses Christmas to consider, of all unfashionable things, the importance of kindness. To do so within a small-‘p’ political drama is no mean feat.