This, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most popular plays, is quite a challenge for any amateur group. With three playing areas (living room, kitchen and hall as well as the suggestion of some stairs), fast moving action, scene changes (some of which require a lot of work), a wordy script, a puppet show and a cast of nine actors with no small parts…. .
Then the subject matter. A family Christmas – what could be nicer?
Well. The three days shown in the play are spent at the house of Belinda and Neville – she holding it all together in spite of the lack of support from him, unappreciative and unhelpful. Much of his time is spent with Eddie, a former colleague and friend, and the pair spend most of it messing about with gadgets and visiting the pub. Eddie offers little support to wife Pattie – preganant with their fourth child – but she is still in love with him, in spite of his detachment and a violent streak.
Phyllis, Neville’s sister, is an exhausted woman who drinks too much and husband Bernard is preoccupied with his annual puppet show, which - in spite of his sincere belief that even if he were to want to stop, the family would insist he carry on - no-one wants to see.
Often alone in the living room, savouring the joys of all those old movies (especially the violent ones) that are shown at Christmastide, or voicing his uber-right opinions on the state of the world, is uncle Bernard.
Rachel, Belinda’s unmarried sister, has hopefully, invited Clive, a writer and friend, along for Christmas. Clive – who disappoints Rachel with his rejection of something more than friendship, while stirring the interest of Phyllis and (especially) Belinda – is the stranger thrown into this already awkward mix.
And awkward is the word – the play being a clever combination of comedy (there are plenty of laughs) and something darker. Some plays present characters that are fairly two-dimensional but I left the show wondering not only about what happened after their Christmas but also what had happened before.
Which is why Ayckbourn is so highly regarded.
I thought this was quite a good production.
David Candy was a suitably confident and laid-back Neville getting the balance right between appearing to be quite a civilised and friendly man and one who, should the need arise, could be very unpleasant – demonstrated when persuading Clive that it would be 'best' for him and Belinda if he agreed that their shenanigans under the tree on Christmas Day were caused by drink. And I enjoyed Janice Lake’s portrayal as the put-upon, unappreciated wife, longing for care and romance … or even just some shenanigans under the tree.
Debby Andrews was the distracted Phyllis, another woman longing for more attention – the scene in which she quizzes Clive about writing was very funny. And Terry Andrews was well cast as the bumbling Bernard whose the puppet show was a disaster which was, of course, just right.
Simon Grey and Tanis Hamilton-Everest were very good as the young couple, Eddie and Pattie. Simon as the rather feckless and unhelpful young husband and Tanis very convincing as pregnant and fed-up wife. They coped especially well with getting the drunken Eddie up to bed – clearly carefully rehearsed and well-executed.
Helena Boughton gave a nicely understated performance as Rachel, a woman clearly worried about being left on the shelf, only just on the right side of desperate. Loved the row about the scarf. The role of Clive, the stranger pitched into this family occasion, was played with skill by Dave Robinson demonstrating his character’s mixture of confidence and discomfort nicely.
Uncle Harvey, with his outrageous eccentricity, is a plum of a role and Andy Allen made the most of it in what I think was a faultless performance.
On the second night, Thursday, when I was at the show, there were a lot of fluffed and forgotten lines – a disappointment for a group where this is not usually a problem. Good timing and rhythm is vital in plays like this and I think the show suffered as a result with audience reaction rather subdued.
Scene changes were done very well and the set, costumes and lighting were fine. The choice of music before the show and between scenes was very appropriate, and the FoH staff looked suitably festive.
As I said in my introduction, the show is a challenge. I was entertained but also a little disappointed by this production.