Chris Eldon Lee reviews Middle Ground Theatre Company’s ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until Saturday 23rd November
‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is a solid, old fashioned, philosophical and well-made three-act play that really reels you in with its eternal themes of belief and duty. It’s a welcome step back to the golden age of theatre, before television took hold.
There’s certainly no goggle box in the Reverend Gregory’s household. Even the carols on the radio are turned off to permit meaningful conversation, which is abundant, soul searching and beautifully written.
It’s Christmas 1947 – a time of moral confusion as middle England copes with the aftermath of the atrocities. It’s also time to keenly grieve for those who won’t be joining in the festivities – and there’s an empty chair at the Vicarage and an equally empty heart.
With mother dead, it falls to the dutiful daughter Jenny (charmingly played by Charlotte Hunter) to care for the aging minister. But there is a Christmas Eve proposal which she’s reluctant to accept unless her elder sister Margaret can be coaxed back home in her place. Margaret, however, is distanced from her father by a guilty secret (which is unfortunately revealed in the programme – so don’t read it.)
Wynyard Browne would admit to being a traditional playwright and was shortly to be swept out of fashion by the 1950s kitchen sink dramatists. Which is a pity because this beguiling play has strong staying powers that will outlive the brash bullies.
He explores the dilemmas faced by a clergy family set apart from society by the very religion they’re supposed to uphold. There’s the preacher who can’t bear Christmas (“a queer time of the year”) and the frustrations of his son and daughters who resent the “pressure to believe”. But as the holly goes up on the mantle piece, the long silences are broken and, as befits a play of this time, hope is born.
Browne builds some deep and well rounded characters with surprisingly few clues. You learn about them all in a casual way. We’re told very little directly, but somehow you know all about them and are comfortable spending Christmas in their company.
Corrine Wicks (pictured) stands out as the mysterious Margaret, giving us tell tale hints about her dreadful secret, whilst keeping the cause of it in her heart for later. She cuts an icily stylish figure as a disillusioned fashion writer, caught between the bright lights of London and the country comforts of her former life.
There are aunts for Christmas (aren’t there always aunts for Christmas!) and the veteran actor Hildegard Neil is lovely as the aunt who understands everything and is sincere and economical with her advice; whilst Sally Sanders sadly falls flat as the Irish comedy aunt. Instead, the best laughs come from Alan Leith as put-upon cousin Richard, though his confession to a life of suppression leaves you aching for him.
Here in 2013, ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ is not a play to set the Yule Log furiously ablaze….but it does exercise the mind and warm the heart in a manner that is strangely satisfying and sadly missing in our present day media. And the cast go about unwrapping it as if they know it’s the very present you’ve been waiting for.
Visit www.theatresevern.co.uk for bookings & information about Theatre Severn