We all have coping mechanisms and default reactions to uncomfortable situations. How, for instance, to watch this occasionally merry but frequently merciless comedy of Christmas manners, from the very front row of the lower level so that the actors are sometimes right in front of you, virtually as close as you get to people on the morning commute on the tube (which is to say, very close)?
They're trained to ignore you; but the spectator's job is to watch the play, not look away. Yikes: it almost warrants another entry on the scoreboard of reactions that each character has an roll-call of on an airport-like scroller at each end of the stage. That immensely tricky device is initially amusing, but eventually wearying, and so, I'm afraid, is Sam Holcroft's otherwise conventional comedy.
It's no fault of an exemplary cast, whose characters are written on too-narrow tramlines of adhering to the characteristics of that scoreboard game. But they also expertly mine the play for all its everyday tragedy and the damage that each in turn has suffered. As this family gathers for Christmas, the two adult sons, now both lawyers (though each wanted respectively to be a professional cricketer and actor), reveal deep tensions between them - and ongoing resentments towards their now wheelchair-bound dad, who has recently suffered a stroke.
Meanwhile the mother is a pill-popping control freak, desperately cleaning at every opportunity; the older son's wife and their depressed 14-year-old daughter have problems of their own. Only the new, over-cheerful actress girlfriend of the younger son, struggling desperately to fit in here, seems happy.
It's a play that trumpets the benefits of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the "quick fix" of therapies that addresses and seeks to change negative patterns of thinking, rather than the root causes of it. (There's even a three page essay in the programme about it). The play eventually unravels in a massive food fight that proves that nothing has been fixed at all (but will give the stage managers a major clean-up headache).
On the plus side, however, Stephen Mangan - that wonderfully hangdog actor - is comedy gold in a wonderful ensemble company that also features brilliant turns from Miles Jupp as his younger brother and Deborah Findlay as their mother.
"a comedy that might easily seem mechanistic is given a wealth of spontaneous life by Marianne Elliott’s exuberant production and by Chloe Lamford’s design."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The writing is a touch scattergun and eventually outpaces comprehension but there is certainly plenty to watch and the acting is never less than top-flight."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
External links to full reviews from popular press