Garrick Theatre, London WC2
Opened 11 December, 2007

Producer Bill Kenwright is nothing if not astute. He has brought into the West End a play which, being set in three successive couples' kitchens on three successive Christmas Eves, can make inroads into the seasonal market, whilst its lack of tinsel or thigh-slapping means that it can also function as an alternative to that same holiday fare. It boasts what, in British theatrical terms, is an all-star cast: Davids Bamber and Horovitch, Jane Horrocks, Jenny Seagrove, John Gordon Sinclair and Lia Williams. It is by Alan Ayckbourn, whose name is not without influence, and (although a revival of a 1972 play) is the first work by him to appear in this parish since he more or less gave up on the West End five years ago. And last but not least, Kenwright has performed a public service by bouncing Bad Girls: The Musical out of the Garrick.

With all those things in its favour, it hardly matters that this production doesn't rise above the level of "quite good". Ayckbourn has never shied away from painting his comedy upon a dark base, and we plainly see the emptiness of each couple both in their joint lives and in their dealings with each other, as well as the ascendancy of the mediocre attained over the three acts by the Pooterish Sidney and Jane Hopcroft (Bamber and Horrocks). But at this point in his writing career he could not yet give full rein to minor-key themes: the second act, for instance, is a succession of frustrated suicide attempts by Williams (who remains eloquent despite speaking not a word during the act), but there is little or no modulation from comedy throughout these events.

This is also due to the direction of Alan Strachan, who in this field is almost the dictionary definition of a safe pair of hands (he directed this summer's Bath revival of Ayckbourn's How The Other Half Loves), but by the same token is unlikely to surprise or illuminate. Still, Jenny Seagrove shows a serviceable comic touch, delivering a first-act performance that is two parts Duchess of Kent to one part Pekinese; David Bamber reveals a shockingly well-muscled pair of upper arms; and Jane Horrocks gets to sing very badly for a change.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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