Stage Door Review 2022
O Christmas Tea
Monday, December 12, 2022
by Aaron Malkin & Alastair Knowles, directed by David MacMurray Smith
James & Jamesy, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
December 10, 2022
James: “We are our own rescuers”
James and Jamesy’s O Christmas Tea is the perfect holiday show. No other Christmas show captures the spirit of the holidays so well. We often hear that Christmas is a time for children, but the comedic clown duo James and Jamesy know that people may grow older in years but never really leave behind the child they once were. It is still there ready to be awakened, and James and Jamesy are masters as awakening that child. They seem to agree with George Bernard Shaw, who said, “We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”. O Christmas Tea offers the audience the miraculous experience of being young again.
James and Jamesy (Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles) are well known to Toronto audiences from their three hit shows at the Toronto Fringe – 2 for Tea in 2013, High Tea in 2015 and In the Dark 2017. In these shows Malkin and Knowles have proven themselves masters of physical and verbal comedy, mime, clown and improvisation. Their off-the-cuff remarks during the shows are hilarious.
O Christmas Tea began as a holiday version of the duo’s High Tea. James and Jamesy refocussed the play so much to reflect the holidays for their first tour of BC in December 2015 that they premiered the reworked play under the title O Christmas Tea. Anyone worried about the word “Christmas” in the title should know that the show has only the secular aspects of Christmas in mind such the giving and receiving of presents, writing a letter to Santa Claus and the nostalgia for childhood. In fact, just as Christmas pantos are much more about heroes and villains than about Christmas itself, O Christmas Tea is much more about tea – both the drink and the occasion for drinking it – and friendship rather than a religious holiday.
To set the tone the show begins with the audience singing the very secular Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, made popular by Andy Williams in 1963, that celebrates the gathering of family and friends. That the show begins with the involvement of the entire audience is a hint that there will be more audience involvement to come.
The light shifts from the audience to stage and discover Jamesy (Knowles) on a set consisting of a table and two chairs backed by two enormous and two slightly less enormous balls meant to suggest Christmas ornaments. Jamesy happens to be on the teapot with James, which means that Jamesy is holding the opening of the pot to his ear and using the lid as the mouthpiece. James (Malkin) walks on stage using a cellphone and arrives at Jamesy’s (invisible) door. After much confusion over whether the person on the cellphone is the same person James is speaking to, Jamesy warmly welcomes James in.
As James explains to the audience, today is his weekly visit to Jamesy’s place for tea. James and Jamesy are a contrasting pair. James is the calmer, more sensible of the two and is dressed very nicely in a jacket and tie with a bowler hat on his shaved head. Jamesy, however, is the more excitable, more eccentric of the two and is dressed in jodhpurs, with a too-tight jacket, no tie and a head of wild wavy hair.
Soon James’s explanations of what is happening on stage begin to bother Jamesy, who wonders whom James is speaking to. It transpires that James knows he is on a stage and is talking to the audience whereas Jamesy believes there is a wall between him and anything outside so that James is simply being rude by not speaking directly to him. James shows Jamesy that there is no wall and waves his hand over the edge of the stage to prove it. Jamesy, however, sees nothing and has to pry open a hole in his wall to see that there is indeed and audience outside his room.
This dispute over whether there is or is not a wall between them and the audience raises all sorts of philosophical questions, but the upshot demonstrates that people see whatever they imagine they see. Yet, matters are about to become more complicated. James is serving Jamesy a type of tea called “clari-tea” (a symbolic pun, perhaps) which is invisible. It is therefore hard to gauge when one has filled a teacup with it. It so happens that so much of this tea flows out of the pot that it engulfs the entire stage. It turns out both James and Jamesy were wrong about the wall. There is a wall between them and the audience except it is invisible. The tea fills up the stage putting the duo under-tea and making them look and act as if they were in an aquarium.
James and Jamesy succeed in breaking the invisible fourth wall (in more ways than one) and the tea then floods the entire auditorium. Jamesy looks out and sees the auditorium is now filled with beautiful sea creatures. He spots an octopus, but, oh no, he also spots a shark. Equipped with a fin and jaws by James the audience member-turned-shark comes on stage and pursues the terrified Jamesy. As it happens this is only one of many transformations that will happen during the rest of the show – some are mass transformations, some individual.
At a word from James the sea floor we the audience occupy suddenly becomes an ark. Jamesy by making the outline of a door creates a door to open to see what is inside each chamber. When he looks inside to see chickens, he hears the chickens in that section of the audience cackling. When he looks inside another door and sees horse, he hears the horses in that section of the audience neighing an whinnying. When James says that one side of the audience are dinosaurs growling and roaring, what do you know, but that side begins growling and roaring.
As if by magic, James and Jamesy have transformed an entire audience of adults into a gleeful audience of children ready to play any game that James and Jamesy think up. It’s amazing. And when James or Jamesy suggests to you what you are, you immediately become whatever it is. You don’t want to resist. You want to join in. You want, in short, to play.
It would be very easy to call O Christmas Tea a “panto for adults”, but that would be incorrect on two counts. First, there is massively more audience participation in O Christmas Tea than there is in any panto. Second, pantos assume a difference between children and adults. Adults may boo and hiss the villain along with their children, but the adult enjoys the fact that their children are so involved in the action. And a panto has references that only adults will understand, not children.
In O Christmas Tea there is no distinction between adults and children. The hugely refreshing approach of James and Jamesy is that some children are simply quite a bit older than other children, but the difference in age doesn’t matter. Their show reminds us that no one has lost their ability to imagine or play – some simply haven’t used it for a while. In the first part of the show, James and Jamesy demonstrate that anything they say is happening – happens. If they say there is a flood of tea, so there is. If they say the table they’re standing on is a desert island, that’s what it becomes. James and Jamesy’s actions in the show remind us that imagination can transform anything into what we say it is.
In reminding us of the power of the imagination, James and Jamesy remind us that not just they, but we too have that power. In a show about giving and receiving, that is the enormous gift of the show, namely creating a space where we are encouraged once again to imagine and to play. No other holiday show does what O Christmas Tea does. You emerge from it invigorated, rejuvenated and joyful that the child in you is now awake.
James and Jamesy’s downtown Toronto performance of O Christmas Tea was the twelfth stop in the duo’s first-ever tour of Ontario. They have eleven more stops to go (listed below). If you live anywhere near the towns on their itinerary and want to give your mood a major boost, check these venues soon to see if there are tickets.
• Dec 11: Rose Theatre, Brampton
• Dec 13: Empire Theatre, Belleville
• Dec 14: Brockville Arts Centre, Brockville
• Dec 15: Shenkman Arts Centre, Ottawa
• Dec 16: Aultsville Theatre, Cornwall
• Dec 17: Grand Theatre, Kingston
• Dec 18: Meridian Theatre, Ottawa
• Dec 20: FirstOntario Arts Centre, St. Catharines
• Dec 21: Capitol Theatre, Chatham
• Dec 22: Chrysler Theatre, Windsor
• Dec 23: Centennial Hall, London
Photo: “James & Jamesy in the Snow”, “James & Jamesy”, © 2022 Thaddeus Hink; James & Jamesy, © 2022 Michael Hintringer.
For tickets visit ochristmastea.com.