Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 8 December, 2010
Alan Ayckbourn is often compared to Chekhov for his bittersweet worldview, but he is also as acute a chronicler of domestic misery as, say, Strindberg. The principal difference is that Strindberg never wrote of a libidinous Santa or an incompetent doctor and amateur marionettist who flies into a rage when his pregnant assistant keeps handing him the wrong Little Pig. Season’s Greetings (1980) is one of Ayckbourn’s bitterest yet most expertly sugared pills, set (as a number of his plays are) at Christmas: the one time when one is most obliged to be jolly in the company of people one often can’t stand.
In this case, Neville and Belinda Bunker, their assorted siblings, in-laws and the obligatory odious, mad uncle go through what, when simply listed, does not seem such an unusual or fecund three-day holiday: cooking mishaps, drunkenness, lazy husbands, a non-relationship and a non-adultery. Fair enough, the shooting is a little out of the usual run of festive fare… and, as with Chekhov, it too proves a tragicomic anticlimax.
Rae Smith’s multi-room, multi-level set is a modern suburban echo of the design for Men Should Weep, also in repertoire in the Lyttelton, as well as being the kind of complex staging that Ayckbourn loves challenging himself and others with. Marianne Elliott marshals her cast through its many half-suggested doorways and walls (well, not through the walls), to the extent of including a (literally) passing sight gag where we glimpse someone peeing in the downstairs loo in the mirror of its half-open door.
Simply to list that cast is in effect to describe the strength and flavour of their performances. David Troughton is grouchy Uncle Harvey, laying into the over-earnest puppetry of Mark Gatiss as the priggish Bernard (complete with what Gatiss describes as a Peter Wyngarde moustache). Nicola Walker is frustrated by her unblossomed friendship with Oliver Chris, who finds himself compulsively drawn to Catherine Tate (whom I have long championed as an actor rather than a comedian); Neil Stuke as Neville, Tate’s husband, would rather tinker with home electronics than deal with family strife, whilst Katherine Parkinson wears her character’s pregnancy like an act of martyrdom. They all show us, as in that loo mirror, the horrors of our own shortcomings, but give us plentiful laughs in order to pretend that we can bear it. So this is Christmas? Yes, it surely is.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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