The Santaland Diaries

Patrick O'Donnell in The Santaland Diaries

Patrick O'Donnell in The Santaland Diaries

Reviewed during its original run, 8th December 2008.

A 33-year old aspiring actor looking for his break in New York ends up spending the festive season working as a Santa elf in a New York Department store. A fate worse than death one might have imagined or, as it turns out, rich territory to mine for the actor/essayist /humourist David Sedaris whose semi-autobiographical tale this is. The highs and lows of this Santaland prison are the elements which Sedaris first broadcast as an audio essay in the early 90's on National Public Radio in the US.

Adapted for the stage, one suspects it has lost some of its punch and pace. The mix of the pathetic and the hilarious needs to be edgier and more contemporary. While overall mildly amusing, it really could have been sharper and funnier - and in this production it is mostly not the fault of either the engaging actor (Patrick O’Donnell) or the director (Stewart Roche). They radiate energy in bringing this to life and, as intended, it is an antidote to the forced jollity and commercial excesses of the Christmas Season. But while the wit flashes on and off like twinkling fairy lights, there’s more than a fair share of humour blackouts to dim what should have been more brittle and sparkling.

Still, there are definite moments to savour and this is where the performance is well served by the script. Crumpet, for that is his cheery elfin name, is dressed in forest green velvet jerkin and candy striped tights and teeming with supposed constant goodwill. Instead of rightly committing hari kiri, Crumpet amuses himself and the audience with his sardonic observations, most effectively on the application process of becoming a Santaland elf and then on the doting parents.

The overserious motivational management processes, bureaucratese and daft training and interview techniques for becoming an overgrown Santa helper are familiarly surreal and most engaging. They are worthy of David Brent and the Office team’s talents in this area. The children, too, are obviously fair target, with improbable names (Vanity, Damascus) and unfortunate faces, but Sedaris lets them off the hook, for he recognises that they are also unconscious prisoners in the false grottos of this blasted snowy kingdom.

As impersonated by O'Donnell, the writer keeps his powder dry for the parents: indulgent, overprotective or just plain stupid. Not to mention their vulgarity and aggression, as they swarm about him, armed with few manners and too many cameras, relentlessly documenting their offspring. The irony is that when first broadcast, the crassness and the exuberant scale of Macy’s New York Department store and the attendant lifestyle might have seemed sufficiently and safely distant for us to have laughed affectionately at that larger than life tinselly cheer. It was just part of America’s contradictory appeal. But times have moved on, the tasteless garishness and wealth are all too familiar, an embarrassing truth not lost on the performer or director. In fact, this production did not really need an American setting at all and might well have benefited from some local stereotypes sneaking into the script.

Seona MacRéamoinn is a journalist and critic.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris

03 – 20 Dec 2008; 1 - 22 Dec 2009

Produced by Purple Heart Theatre Company
In Bewleys Café Theatre

Directed by: Stewart Roche

With: Patrick O’Donnell