“Now we don’t want to start Christmas like this, do we?”
Slotting into rep in the Lyttelton for the next few months is Marianne Elliott’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings, a play set during the festive period but by no means your average cheery Christmas show. Set in 1980 in the home of Neville and Belinda Bunker, this show shines a light on what happens when a group of nine people gather on Christmas Eve to spend the next few days together in festive harmony. The veneer of civility is soon shattered as we come to see that the various relationships, between friends, family, would-be lovers, husbands and wives, are all under huge strain and as events unfold spurred on by the arrival of a newcomer, home truths are exposed and the misery of human existence confronted.
It isn’t a comedy per se, rather a play with many farcical elements which come from the interactions between this group of people thrown together for Christmas as they tiptoe around fragile egos, unspoken truths, rampant libidos and frustrated ambitions. But it is also somewhat grim in its outlook: unhappy marriages, lack of career fulfilment, sexual frustrations are all themes that emerge time and time again, making for an uneasy mix. As an early preview, performances were impressive across the board but the pacing of the first act in particular needs a lot of work. With three scenes to Act II’s two, it is naturally somewhat longer but began to feel interminably long: around 15 people near me didn’t return after the interval, which was a shame as it did sharpen up quite a lot.
With such a stellar ensemble, there’s plenty to admire in terms of the acting. David Troughton and Catherine Tate share top honours: Troughton’s gun-obsessed retired security expert is uncompromisingly brusque and consequently gruffly hysterical and Tate’s Belinda is a beautifully judged comic performance of a woman trapped in domestic hell but desperate to improve herself and unable to resist the sexual stirrings caused by the new arrival. Given how well known so many of her comic personae are, she brings surprising new layers here in what constantly feel likes a fresh performance. Mark Gatiss’ bumbling Bernard is another delight, the puppet show he haltingly tries to bring to life is a classic scene, the culmination of which is one of the few times I felt there was genuinely great theatre in front of me and I also enjoyed Oliver Chris’s Clive, the all-kinds-of-handsome novelist whose easy equanimity is challenged by the torrent of repressed emotion his arrival unleashes.
But given the size of the company, some of the others suffer by comparison. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed by Katherine Parkinson’s rather muted Pattie, a performance that is too subtle amongst all the farce, Nicola Walker’s overdone crying scenes being particularly guilty despite an otherwise moving performance. And some roles are just plain underwritten; Jenna Russell is an absolute scream as the frequently sozzled Phyllis but is criminally underused. Neil Stuke and particularly Mark Wootton struggled to make realistic or engaging their blokeish husbands: poorly drawn stereotypes with Wootton’s detached Eddie being a frankly horrific father and wife but with no accompanying real exploration into his behaviour or any real depth, resulting in paper-thin characters.
Rae Smith’s design is impressive on first sight, three floors of a house with deconstructed walls inside allowing for the action to flow from room to room. But considering how much effort must have gone into the construction, it is surprising how little either of the top two floors are actually used: the little attic is used a fair bit but the landing with its many doors to bedrooms isn’t utilised at all other than as a passageway. It seems well, a bit wasteful to be honest.
I am not going to pretend that I belong to the Waltons but I love Christmas and how it brings together my extended family, we regularly had 20 odd people at our house for Christmas dinner and I can’t remember a single one of those occasions being this nightmare that is so often depicted in the media. And so whilst the beauty of this show for some people might be the recognition factor, I’d be asking them why are you friends with these people or inviting them round for Christmas if you don’t like them!! Combined with my dislike of farce and the fact that I haven’t ever really enjoyed an Ayckbourn play thus far, one might wonder why I ever bought tickets for this show in the first place, but this isn’t a group of actors that I could ignore. And in some respects, in playing it straight more often than not, they do succeed in transcending my dislikes at times and I have to admit to laughing quite a lot. But ultimately, this just isn’t my type of play, everything always come back to farce and the hints of something more that are offered by this production gave a tantalising glimpse of what would have appealed much more to me.