DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Season’s Greetings – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Writer/Director: Alan Ayckbourn

Designer: Kevin Jenkins

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Season’s Greetings is a bit of an oddity in the Ayckbourn canon. Initially performed at the Theatre in the Round in 1980, it was successful enough to be revived the following year, then disappeared from the Scarborough programme for nearly 40 years, despite popularity elsewhere. So the current production, astonishingly, is the first in the present theatre.

In fact, unusually for an Ayckbourn play, in some ways it sits uneasily in the round, the key scene of the puppet show, for instance, which inevitably can only face one way! On the other hand the fluid setting, mainly the hall, opening into dining room and sitting room, with staircase built over the stalls seats, is perfectly suited to the round – a sort of farce without doors where you have to watch out what the chap in the next room is up to.

Over the years many attempts have been made to define an Ayckbourn style, all defeated by the fact that he keeps changing it! However, Season’s Greetings belongs to a period where he seemed to predicate his comedy on the assumption that, if you put a few people together to enjoy themselves for a day or two, dissent and disaster would surely follow.

Season’s Greetings goes a bit further than most. This is not a spoiler – Sir Alan tells us in the programme: this is the one where someone gets shot! Unusually there is a character whom Ayckbourn characterizes as “demonic”, but he is, as always, equally aware of the damage that perfectly nice people can do.

It’s Christmas time – five scenes covering bits of four days – and the ingredients are blended to much the same effect as in the exploding plum pudding pictured in the programme. Take two hosts, Neville and Belinda, joined in a conventionally happy marriage – that is to say, he’s equable, a good provider, but incapable of dragging himself away from gadgets long enough to notice her – and surround them with relatives and friends at various levels of inadequacy, alcoholism and paranoia. Then light the blue touch paper – but not before you’ve added the final piquant touch, the guest. As Noel Coward knew in Hay Fever, nothing shows how crazy a family is better than a haplessly inoffensive guest.

Ayckbourn productions appear natural, even relaxed, but in fact, operate with military precision – and so it is here – as ever, he’s the man to make the laughs run on time. But it’s the characters that make the whole thing work. At the outset, Harvey, Neville’s uncle (Bill Champion), sits brooding in front of the television, glorying in the violence of the film he is watching while his brother-in-law, Bernard (Leigh Symonds), flutters ineffectually, suitably appalled at Harvey’s giving all the kids (never seen) guns for Christmas. By the end of the play Harvey, the menacing psychopath, manages to do marginally more harm than Bernard whose sweetness of nature disappears with every criticism of his terminally boring puppet-show.

Bernard’s wife Phyllis (Eileen Battye) benefits from not appearing in the first 25 minutes of the play while increasingly desperate accounts from the kitchen chart her struggles with the joint of lamb, then exploding on stage in a haze of alcoholic triumph. Rachel, Belinda’s sister (Rachel Caffrey), tries a positive approach to her sexual failures and hang-ups (“It really doesn’t matter to me”), but ends up more distraught than anyone. Eddie, a former employee of Neville’s (Michael Lyle) cheerfully carries failure around with him like a Christmas present as his wife Pattie (Mercy Ojelade) tries desperately to believe in him. Neville (Matt Addis) is the inert centre of it all as Belinda (Frances Marshall) flails around for means for escape, only to settle where she was and always will be. And, as for Clive (Andy Cryer), the aspiring writer and potential boyfriend for Rachel, he suffers “Get the Guest” in a big way.

Harvey, it must be admitted, is one notch up from the sort of guy you meet in the pub (Ayckbourn seems to have anticipated the undirected viciousness that makes Facebook so depressing), but otherwise, we can enjoy the joyous mayhem of everyday self-obsession. When you want to yell at all the characters in turn, you know the performances are pitch-perfect – as they are.

Runs until 28 September 2019 | Image: Contributed

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