Birmingham Rep and touring
Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol: "I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year." But if he'd seen Alan Aykbourn's Season's Greetings he might have agreed with American humorist Frank McKinney Hubbard who observed: "Next to a circus there ain't nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit."
Ayckbourn wrote Season's Greetings more than 20 years ago. It hasn't dated a bit. It would be just as witty and acerbic in any age. It's the ideal festive entertainment for those who want an alternative to pantomime.
The playwright's early offerings were formulaic in that they had a maximum of six characters who used two entrances. Those restrictive practices were caused by the limitations of Ayckbourn's theatre.
Season's Greetings benefits from being a later work. There are nine characters whose multi-layered relationships are explored at various times during the five scenes. No one hogs the limelight; although two of the actors are undoubtedly stars, they don't smother the rest of the cast in any way.
The play is the first revival to be produced by Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud Theatre as part of its partnership with Ayckbourn who also directs.
Season's Greetings starts on Christmas Eve in the home of Neville and Belinda Bunker. Belinda's sister Rachel is in a state about novelist Clive coming to stay for a few days. Pregnant Pattie and her husband Eddie are permanently at loggerheads while in the kitchen Auntie Phyllis's efforts to prepare the dinner are hampered because she's drunk. Then there's Uncle Harvey, watching bloodthirsty films on television and as full of the Christmas spirit as a broken bauble.
Before long, thanks to Ayckbourn's unrivalled ability to recognise human frailties, the characters are either at one another's throats or on the verge of committing adultery
Liza Goddard is a delightful Belinda, on one occasion invoking uproarious laughter from the women in the audience when she flies off the handle because Nev won't do anything around the house. She's also in another highly amusing scene under the Christmas tree with Clive and a teddy bear that won't stop drumming.
The last time Matthew Kelly was on the Rep stag he won an Olivier best-actor award for his role as Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. In Season's Greetings he shows what a versatile actor he is. He shines as Bernard, the eccentric doctor who can hardly do anything right. His cringe-inducing puppet show, The Three Little Pigs, is hilarious.
Terence Booth (Harvey) gets some of the funniest lines as he berates Bernard for his incompetence with the puppet show. The security-business expert who has a knife strapped to his leg becomes more and more sadistic the longer the holiday season goes on.
Alison Pargeter is endearing as the slightly stupid, tearful Pattie; Eliza Hunt excels as Phyllis who was "peculiar" when she married Bernard but has now become "completely loopy"; and Alexandra Mathie is sufficiently messed up as Rachel, the 38-year-old acting like a teenager over the arrival of Clive.
Bill Champion (Nev) and Jason Baughan (Eddie) are typically uncaring blokes who prefer to go to the pub rather than do things around the house; and Matthew Cottle (Clive) is convincingly uneasy as the guest who finds it difficult to fit in with this dysfunctional family.
The pace in parts of the first act is a little pedestrian. But this revival is no turkey - it's a real feast.
And here's a rare accolade: some of the lines in the second act couldn't be heard - because the audience were laughing so loudly! If you get the chance, give yourself a present this Christmas and go see it.
"Season's Greetings" plays at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth until November 27th and at the Theatre Royal, Bath from November 29th to December 4th
Reviewer: Steve Orme