Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th November, 2011
Alan Ayckbourn’s seasonal comedy is doing the rounds again in this quality production directed by Robin Herford, boasting an ensemble cast assembled it would appear from the soaps – there’s him from Walford and her off of Doctors… Audience members around me were playing Spot the Star.
Whatever their provenance, it’s a bloody good cast. The play covers the period from Christmas Eve to early morning after Boxing Day. Neville and Belinda Bunker have filled their house with friends and family. Spinster-in-the-making Rachel has invited her writer friend Clive to join them for the festivities. If you’ve ever spent Christmas with someone else’s family, you will be aware of the pitfalls.
Add to the mix a pair of warring uncles: one (the magnificent Dennis Lill) believes society is going down the pan at a rate of knots and goes around armed to the teeth. He gives little children guns as Christmas presents – one lucky lad gets a crossbow, having received his gun the previous year. The other uncle (Christopher Timothy) is an ineffectual doctor with an alcoholic wife (the hilarious Sue Wallace) and a habit of performing excruciatingly inept puppet shows every year, despite the family’s hatred of this ritual. Tensions simmer and boil over. The writer makes a move on the hostess but their coitus under the Christmas tree is interrupted by a Duracell bunny, wrapped up for one of the kids, banging its drum and alerting the household.
As socially awkward novelist Colin, Mathew Bose is at once endearing to the audience and also the recipient of most of our cringes. We feel his awkwardness and embarrassment, when Dennis Lill reveals the six-inch throwing blade he keeps strapped to his lower leg, or when inhibited Rachel tries to express herself whenever she can snatch a moment alone with him.
The play is a comedy of manners but there is also plenty of physical comedy and wonderful moments to enjoy. The rehearsal of the puppet show is always the highlight for me, every time I see a production. Uncle Bernard’s Three Little Pigs is as funny a play-within-a-play as that of the Mechanicals’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Glynis Barber as neglected wife Belinda shows the fragility of the character. She has one of the darkest speeches in the play in which she reveals her need to try to keep up-to-date with each new thing, and her complete inability to do so. “You have to take an interest, don’t you?” she says. “If I didn’t, well, I’d just die.” This is as bleak a moment as any in Chekov.
The play ends with early morning farce, in which Colin is carried off to hospital having been shot by the mad uncle who mistook him for a looter of Christmas presents. The typical family Christmas might not involve firearms but, as Ayckbourn shows us, can still be quite a battlefield.