THE HOLLY AND THE IVY
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Tuesday 29th November, 2011
I was going to call this review “Pricks And Creeps” – in reference to the plants in the title, of course. Sadly, the show doesn’t merit so cheeky a headline.
Purportedly a Christmas classic and billed as “profoundly moving”, this 1948 offering from Wynward Browne is a bit like opening a present and being more delighted by the packaging. Set in a parsonage in post-war Middle England, the play tells the story of family members gathering on Christmas Eve and – and – sitting around reading and knitting and – well, that’s the action for you. The parson (Stuart McGugan) is like a failed auditionee for Bond villain in his long black jacket and long white wig. He sermonises on the Incas and Pagan traditions, among other things, and doubts if his life’s work has had any discernible effect on the community. His grown-up children tread on eggshells around him, fearing his disapprobation or – worse!- another sermon.
There is Jenny (Julia Mallam off of Emmerdale) who is a trapped-at-home carer, keeping her Scottish boyfriend at arms’ length because of her duty to look after her father. Jenny is a Stepford daughter, all smiles and fresh coffee. The few moments when she gets to express her conflicting emotions don’t really work; she has already given up and accepted her fate. There is Margaret (Corrinne Wicks, also off of Emmerdale) who has been living it up in that London, funding her extravagant lifestyle by writing lucrative articles about ladies’ undergarments in fashion magazines. She returns to the parsonage with a Dark Secret and drinks like a fish. Lastly, there is only begotten son Mick (Chris Grahamson, never been in Emmerdale) a soldier whose experiences have led him to agnosticism. These last two have a bit of fire to them – they sneak out to the pub and come back falling down drunk. Fair play to them but this activity scandalises visiting Aunt Bridget, a supposedly comic turn from Sally Sanders (Imagine Mrs Doyle in Father Ted, or even Agnes Brown come to think of it – well, she is nothing like them.) Also present is Aunt Lydia (Joanna Wake) an eternal optimist who, thankfully, is the least annoying of the lot.
The Dark Secret comes to light. Margaret is draining bottles at such a rapid pace because she got knocked up by an American GI in the war. He was killed but she had a secret baby who in his turn died at the age of four. Margaret kept all this from the family, fearing father’s reaction. The rest of the family understand completely but when Dad finds out, after some proselytising and mawkish sentimentality, demonstrates that parsons are human too, albeit kept at a remove from the society he tries to help because people won’t be themselves around him.
Margaret agrees to move back from London, releasing Jenny to marry the Scot and move to South America (!) and they all shuffle off for Christmas morning service at the church next door.
It’s all fairly well played by a decent cast – especially strong was Chris Grahamson ranting against everything his dad believes – but there is a quaintness to the play that has not dated well. The second act is deathly dull and needs editing with a chain saw. I found myself wishing I’d snuck out to the pub with Mick and Margaret.
The picture does not show the parson’s hair as it was when I saw it so you don’t get the full effect.