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A CurtainUp London London Review
Season's Greetings

It's all coming apart you know. Ripping apart like tissue paper. — Harvey
Season's Greetings
Mark Gatiss as Bernard (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
This revival of the 1980 farce and the 26th play by Alan Ayckbourn is, of course, proving a popular choice for the Christmas period: focussing on the many dysfunctional festive occasions when families are forced together and instructed to be merry, over eat and drink. The National Theatre's production is a kind of seasonal show for adults and lays bare the uncomfortable moments in the Bunker family.

The play opens with a scene only too familiar as old films are churned out by the television channels and a family member comments on which actor or, more likely, actors are now dead. Most of the audience found this hysterical but I am afraid I am with the late Claire Rayner, agony aunt (though not an actress, she incidentally died in October this year) who finds these family comedies more the stuff of tragedy.

The Bunkers have their usual number of misfits and unhappy marriages. There is Phyllis (Jenna Russell) who imbibes too much in the privacy of the kitchen under the guise of preparing food when all that is getting pickled is herself. We are told that "the leg of lamb looks fresher than the cook!" Harvey (David Troughton) is the security guard who insists on giving the children of peace loving parents things military, such as guns and knives, for Christmas. Mark Gatiss plays Bernard, Phyllis' husband and his puppet show for the children on Boxing Day is always a groan-worthy event. Having introduced last year all forty of Ali Baba's thieves at ten minute intervals, everyone breathes a sigh of relief when they hear that this year's show will be The Three Little Pigs. "Just three?" members of the family ask.

Oliver Chris is the shy writer Clive, the only non family member invited and longed for by 38 year old spinster Rachel (Nicola Walker). Comedienne Catherine Tate is the frustrated Belinda who attempts a torrid, sexual consummation with Clive after everyone is in bed asleep, not allowing for the fearsome remote toy that can switch everything in the room on at random, including the loudest music. Katherine Parkinson a very fine comic actress but never has quite enough to do as the very pregnant Pattie, Eddie's neglected wife.

Rae Smith's sprawling domestic set shows two levels upstairs as well as the ground floor but is too large for a play where the vast majority of the action takes place in the Bunker living room. The sheer expanse seems to detract from what should be an intimate play as you are always aware of the unused space to which your eye frequently strays.

It is true that Ayckbourn's comedies are as much about pain as laughter and character tensions always generate familial schism. However, despite the realism of the portraits and the familiarity of some of Ayckbourn's fine observation, somehow Marianne Elliott's production never tackles the audience's disbelief and convinces us that Season's Greetings is anything other than an onstage farce.

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Season's Greetings
Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Starring: Catherine Tate, David Troughton, Mark Gatiss

With: Oliver Chris, Katherine Parkinson, Jenna Russell, Neil Stuke, Nicola Walker, Marc Wootton
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes with one interval.
Box Office: 0207 452 3000
Booking to 13th March 2011
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st December 2010 performance at Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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