Season's Greetings, National Theatre
This is yet another feat of the force that is the National Theatre. It is the first time Alan Ayckbourn has been staged at the NT in eleven years – and what a homecoming it is. Unlike the last play of Ayckbourn’s staged here (House and Garden in 2000), Season’s Greetings is a lot less fixated on structural tricks and gimmicks and, to some degree, puts the farce techniques often associated with Ayckbourn to one side in favour of a fuller and more independently drawn characters.
This Christmas for controlling wife Belinda (Catherine Tate) and her frustratingly incapable husband Neville (Neil Stuke), Santa brings presents, food and friends – and all the other problems associated with the festive season, not least the stuffy Uncle Bernard’s stuffy Christmas puppet show. When supposedly prolific author Clive (played by Oliver Chris) enters their midst, he seems to draw out the sexual frustration that has accumulated in Belinda as a result of her less-than-attentive husband. Alongside the jealous rivalry that develops between Belinda and Rachel (Nicola Walker), the latter who had initiated Clive’s visit in the first place, the person most disturbed by this unprepossessing newcomer is Harvey (an excellent David Troughton). His bullish nature, bloody-mindedness and army training all lead to him observing Clive with the utmost attention and suspicion.
The beauty of this Ayckbourn play is the many interactions and fraught dynamics that orbit the main action at any one time. And in Marianne Elliott’s masterly production, each character has been observed with such care and sensitivity that you get a whole cross-section of human pain and suffering – whether that’s through the heavily pregnant Pattie (a beautifully pitched performance by Katherine Parkinson) whose placid nature has made her a doormat for everyone, the unstable Phyllis (Jenna Russell on top form) or the please-just-leave-me-alone Eddie who, deep down, would like to shun all adult responsibilities and immerse himself in the pub and gadgets.
At any time on the stage, something is happening in different pockets of the house. The excellent direction in this production means that the accompanying action is at a perfect level to balance the main melody of drama, and the size of the Lyttelton stage means that – as a viewer – you never feel you are watching something cluttered. Rather, you can switch in and out of scenarios as if skipping through television channels.
What is perhaps the trickiest scene – Uncle Bernard’s dreary puppet show of The Three Little Pigs – is a demonstration of the mastery of this production. It’s got to be dull for the characters because that’s the point, but it can’t bore the audience. Elliott’s sensitivity to detail and her ability to perfectly counterpoint several levels of action, as well as the sincerity in Mark Gattis’s interpretation of Bernard, means that this is a tense and engrossing accumulation of all that is painful and hurtful in this household. Bernard swats thoughtlessly at Pattie’s incompetence with the props, Harvey doesn’t watch or listen, but nevertheless commentates, Phyllis totally misses the point, mistaking a person’s finger for a puppet caterpillar, and eventually the house comes tumbling down.
Ayckbourn’s play, as with so many of his works, is a deeply serious comment about how a lack of communication, understanding and empathy can destroy a household and a human heart in the same way as the puppet show collapses. We wince as characters repeatedly, and often unknowingly, bruise one another’s souls and fail to diagnose their own shortcomings. At the end, Bernard – a doctor – pronounces Clive dead, only to then witness his patient come around. “I can’t even get that right!” Bernard despairs, but this speaks volumes for all the characters, none of whom are capable of understanding other people or interpreting situations.