Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Michael Cabot
It’s the early 1970s, and Sidney and Jane are happy enough as a couple. Sidney is ambitious, while Jane is unswervingly supportive of him. To help with his ideas for expansion, Sidney throws a Christmas Eve party with a view to impressing his bank manager and other luminaries who might be able to assist him. At first, it’s clear that Sidney’s guests – including Ronald, his banker and Geoff, an architect – are, at best, tolerating him while actually holding him and his dreams in contempt. The following Christmas Eve sees Sidney, now more successful, Jane, Ronald and Ronald’s wife, Marion, at a party hosted by Geoff and his wife Eva, while in the third act, the action moves on another year and takes place at Ronald and Marion’s – where Sidney and Jane gatecrash – and take over – the evening.
Over the three acts, Sidney’s star ascends while those of Geoff and Ronald fall away, leaving them needing Sidney more than he ever needed them, causing them some considerable distress. And, of course, there is well-written dialogue and darkly farcical events aplenty.
Felicity Houlbrooke’s Jane is the most sympathetic character and fully three dimensional. Not very bright, she is unswervingly supportive of Sidney, even when he treats her badly. Houlbrooke skilfully brings out her cheeriness as well as her lack of empathy for other characters – a trait they all share to varying extents. Paul Sandys’ Sidney is the archetypal ‘little man’, full of bluster and always needing to be in control. Pompous and self-centred, one wonders what Jane sees in him. John Dorney’s portrayal of Geoff is largely successful in showing us his misogyny and general unpleasantness. There is a thoroughly uncomfortable (to modern ears) exchange in the first act as Geoff and Ronald discuss the physical attributes of the party’s female guests. Graham O’Mara brings us an understated Ronald. Rosanna Miles brings us Marion. Miles paints her descent from using alcohol as a crutch to alcoholism well as the emptiness of her life with Ronald becomes ever more apparent. Helen Keeley as Eva, provides a tour-de-force in largely understated acting in the second act as Eva’s addiction to anti-depressants and her response to recent events all come to a head. Keeley ensures that her performance remains sympathetic even as everything around her descends into a very dark farce.
The action moves briskly under the sure hand of director Michael Cabot, even if we do occasionally squirm on the characters’ behalf in some awkward silences. However, these are characters painted in broad brushstrokes: there’s little to redeem any of them and a little more depth to their characterisation would be welcome. Simon Scullion’s simple angular set easily transforms to form three homes of very different character, albeit each evoking 1970s kitsch, as the play progresses.
Overall, this is a largely undemanding and pleasant night out. There’s plenty of laughs along the way in the company of these fundamentally unsympathetic people: it’s a pity we don’t get a little more under their skins.
Runs until 26 June 2021 and on tour