If you wanted to contrive a vehicle for stirring up stress, aggravation, sibling rivalry, drunkenness, lechery and much else besides, you could hardly do worse than opt for a family Christmas. Yet, every year, millions of us repeat the same well-trodden process of assembling families for a 2 or 3 day festive celebration, that frequently turns out to be disastrous. And that's exactly what Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 play is all about – a family Christmas peppered with tensions fuelled by drink and the stress created when people with little else in common but their biological origins face confinement together.
Ostensibly a comedy, there's actually more to 'Season's Greetings' than simply creating humorous situations. Simmering under the surface, and sometimes boiling over it, are tensions which are significantly darker than the merriness we'd like to think of as the hallmark of the season. The play is set over three days from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, and is notable because of its absence of children in the cast. In fact, this device actually turns out to be highly effective because what we're witnessing are adults more or less acting like children.
And that's mirrored in Rae Smith's cavernous and brilliantly-designed set which rises up over three levels to deliver a large house complete with attic. The internal walls of the ground floor area have been removed – though remnants remain to indicate where they should be. And the edges of the set, such as the floors of the upper stories all have exposed edges which gives the effect of a house that has been sawn in two, almost with a dolls house feel to it as if children have been let loose in a grown-up environment.
Catherine Tate – best known, perhaps, for her inventively-executed comedic TV characterisations – heads-up a hugely talented cast who, one feels, all have memories of the kind of scenes they are enacting for us. Ms Tate's Belinda is a wife who can barely control her antipathy towards husband, Neville (Neil Stuke), and certainly can't control her desire for sister Rachel's boyfriend. David Troughton, as Uncle Harvey, more or less steals the show with an eccentric character who inhabits a world where danger and lawlessness exist round every street corner, requiring him to arm himself with a knife strapped to his calf, and described by Belinda as 'a walking arsenal'. Nicola Walker also impresses as Rachel, the thirty-something spinster whose attempts to find happiness with a significant other are thwarted as much by her self-deprecation as anything else.
A prolific writer with more than 70 plays to his credit, Alan Ayckbourn's work still divides critics to some extent, though it is largely well-respected by audiences who warm to his distinctive style of comedic drama. 'Season's Greetings' is one of Ayckbourn's best pieces, though the second half tends to get bogged-down in a puppet play, even though there's a surprise in store from the knife-toting Harvey. But Marianne Elliott's enjoyable, well-crafted revival has much to commend it and to laugh at, and occasionally to shrink from. Ayckbourn's keen observations still have almost universal familiarity even in our technological age – more than enough to make one sneak off to hibernate alone for the last week of December.
"A top-notch ensemble cast...illustrates what a serious business Ayckbourn’s humour is now considered to be."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Hilarious and sometimes genuinely harrowing revival."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
" Although Marianne Elliott's production has its moments, it never quite achieves the painful delirium of classic Ayckbourn revivals."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"There have been 10 Alan Ayckbourn plays on the South Bank, but none finer than this mordantly hilarious Christmas farce, a 30-year-old classic of drunken disasters and misrouted passions round the tree."
Michael Coveney for The Independent
Paul Callan for The Daily Express
"This show will give you many Christmas laughs.
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail