The Theatreguide.London Review
Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden & The Long Christmas Dinner
King's Head Theatre Winter 2012-2013
These two very short (under 30 minutes each) plays by Thornton Wilder are both charming, but their interest extends beyond their own merits.
They offer a glimpse of an experimental writer inventing a new theatrical vocabulary that he would later develop into full form in his major plays, with then-revolutionary elements which have become almost commonplace eighty years on. This rarely-done double bill gives you the chance to see the beginnings.
Like his most famous play Our Town (one of America's true masterpieces), The Happy Journey creates a whole world through indirection and suggestion, on a virtually bare stage. Four chairs represent the automobile (Yes, this is the first time that was done) in which a family drive eighty miles across New Jersey to visit relatives. On the way they stop for hot dogs, check the engine, pause to let a funeral go by, sing songs, read billboards and finally arrive at the home of the daughter/sister who recently had and lost a baby.
So simple is the text that you may not realise until later that all of life has been touched on in twenty-five minutes, and that we know more about this family than we learn about characters in some longer plays.
The Long Christmas Dinner plays with stage time as Wilder later did in The Skin Of Our Teeth, as a single dinner table watches more than fifty years go by. Generations change without the play breaking stride – a baby mentioned one moment will enter as a young adult and take a seat the next, while older generations excuse themselves from the table and depart.
We watch a comforting continuity – grandchildren named after departed grandparents – and some realistic changes – homebodies replaced by those eager to move away, traditionalists by those looking to remodel the house – and are also made aware, indirectly, of the changes in the world outside.
So both plays require a delicacy and a sensitivity to their allusive qualities, which this production directed by Tim Sullivan is a little hit-and-miss in delivering. The director allows his actors' quickly-sketched characters to lapse into caricature a bit too much, particularly in The Happy Journey, but when he and they hit the right level, both plays have their moments of surprising emotional power.
As I've suggested, the two plays would be worth seeing even in a weaker production, because of their historical importance and their role as preliminary exercises toward Wilder's major works. Though the evening is a short one, there is enough that works to make both plays thoroughly entertaining.
Review - The Happy Journey & The Long Christmas Dinner - King's Head 2012