Chris Eldon Lee reviews Alan Ayckbourn’s “Season’s Greetings”, which is at Clwyd Theatr Cymru until Saturday 2nd November 2013
Christmas has come early to Clwyd. It felt slightly strange sitting in shirtsleeves watching a Christmas show with thermometers reading 17 degrees. But rudimentary research reveals that ‘Seasons Greetings’ is least performed at Christmas itself; too much competition from purse-filling Pantos, I suppose.
There is, however, another reason why this play feels so out of kilter because none of the characters (who range from completely OTT to terribly dull) is truly believable.
They are all gathered at the Bunker household for three days of festivity and fun. They’re the sort of family who go to church once a year, just in case. But beyond the pretence, they’re all utterly selfish with a distinct absence of brotherly love or communal happiness. Instead there’s a hell of a lot of stress (well, it is Christmas!), which Alan Ayckbourn’s alchemy turns into plenty of painful laughter. In fact his plays return again and again to the festive scenario simply because it’s such a rich vein of ridiculousness.
Belinda, the home-making host, is the single, still, constant in the play (till she succumbs to a spot of late-night lust under the Christmas tree). Sarah Tansley is superb here; looking like a dazzling, young Penelope Wilton, tottering around in very high heels, trying to keep the party spirit going. I saw her last as a vibrant, teenage Juliet, and the years since have served her well. She’s blessed with the ability to get knowing laughs one minute and deliver a devastatingly sad-but-understanding soliloquy on the demise of marital passion the next. They’ve been married eight years and they’re already buying themselves their own Christmas presents.
The caricatures assembled around her are entirely recognisable at any seasonal gathering…but hugely magnified. As ever, Ayckbourn’s women come off best. Charlotte Gray has performed at Clwyd numerous times but she’s a real comic revelation as the drunken Santa-phobic Phyllis; red top, red lips, ginger hair, legs akimbo. It’s a fabulous paralytic portrayal, especially when going up stairs.
Katie Elin-Salt yet again displays her fine comic potential. Patti is the wining wimp of the family with much to wine about; yet another unwanted pregnancy from a hopeless husband. She wears her ‘bump’ like a battering ram and her wide-eyed inadequacy would be painful to watch but for her comedic skills.
Amongst the men, there’s the low-grade fascist Uncle Harvey who’s bought all the children guns for Christmas; whilst Uncle Bernard, the hopeless loser (especially at snakes and ladders) insists on presenting his lamentable puppet show – an annual disaster, conjured up from Ayckbourn’s own childhood memories.
In truth the whole play has the feel of a perpetual puppet show with Ayckbourn tangling his characters’ strings as cack handedly as Bernard. In amongst the gags and stunts (there’s a wonderful automatic Christmas tree) it’s a rather bleak scenario.
You wouldn’t want to spend Christmas with a family like the Bunkers, and part of the enjoyment of the play is knowing you don’t have to. The tragedy is, as Ayckbourn has clearly noticed, many of us sadly do.
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