Saturday 25 December 2010

Season's Greetings at the National Theatre

On Tuesday, we went to see Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings at the National Theatre. Jeff lined up early in the morning to take advantage of the NT's day ticket policy.1 They hold back a number of tickets to sell on the day, even for sold-out shows, which Season's Greetings was. The best part, however, is that day tickets are only £10 and if you are close enough to the start of the line, you can get seats in the front row. Fortunately, Jeff was third so our seats were front row centre. Considering the fact that tickets on the West End can be £80 or £90, £10 for front-row seats is a pretty good deal. 

Season's Greetings is a Christmas farce which originally premier in 1980. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it centres on the antics of a dysfunctional family. By now, the story of family tensions on holidays has certainly moved into cliché territory but Ayckbourn's play is an example of the genre at its best and is at times tremendously funny. For the first half an hour, we are introduced to the characters who have gathered for the holiday at the house of Neville (Neil Stuke), an electronic store owner and his wife, Belinda (Catherine Tate). Neville is oblivious to the needs of his wife and is constantly fiddling with electronic children toys. Belinda, for her part, is frustrated with her husband's inattention and jumps at the chance for an affair when one literally presents itself at her door. Apart from the couple, there is Uncle Harvey (David Troughton), a grumpy and macho retired security guard who gives the children guns for Christmas. Harvey lives in a constant state of discontent and cynicism, finding fault with much, especially with Bernard (Mark Gatiss), an ineffectual doctor. Bernard, who puts on an annual long-winded and unwelcomed puppet show for the children, is married to the alcoholic Phyllis (Jenna Russell), who keeps having accidents and nosebleeds while preparing the dinner on Christmas Eve. I should note that the children never actually appear on stage, although their presence is very well signalled. They are perhaps not needed, considering that the adults are much like children themselves. Eddie (Marc Wootton), a lazy and overweight man is a failed businessman, and his wife Patti (Katherine Parkinson) is expecting another child. Rounding out the cast is lonely and frigid Rachel (Nicola Walker), Belinda's sister and Clive (Oliver Chris), a young novelist (who has written one book) she has invited for Christmas.

The play takes a while to get going and there are no big laughs for the first half of the first act. However, once the situation has been firmly set and all the characters introduced, Ayckbourn''s farce really takes off. The last scene of the first act is particularly funny and I am not sure if I have ever laughed so loud and long at a play. A couple of moments stand out. One is the pregnant Pattie trying to wake her husband from a drunken slumber and being forced to carry her heavyset husband to bed. The other particularly notable piece of comedy comes from Clive and Belinda, whose sexual tension has been building from the moment of his arrival. Their attempts to consummate their affair result in a hilarious series of mishaps including the interruptions of a drumming monkey and a singing Christmas tree which wake almost the entire family.

The less successful second act, although still funny, takes a darker turn. Suffice to say that one character is shot in the climax. Although this conclusion perhaps does not entirely fulfil the promise of the first act, the play as a whole is excellent and great entertainment. Much of this of course comes from Ayckbourn's script, which is often sharp and does not feel dated after three decades. It should also be mentioned that the cast are universally strong. Marianne Elliott's direction keeps the action moving and the play does not drag even in the early moments of exposition. Also, the set and the costumes seem to brilliantly capture the era.

For me, it was very interesting to see how the family members regard Clive, the writer. Although Clive's success is subtly undermined when characters admit they haven't read his book, these confessions are always done with a certain level of admiration. In today's age in which self-publishing is so common and easy, it is hard to imagine there was a time in which people could inspire so much awe by having a book published, even if the characters' reactions have been exaggerated for comic effect.

Season's Greetings was a great way to greet the season.
1Interestingly, we have already bought tickets to the much-hyped Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle); our tickets are for April 2011.

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