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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Catherine Tate and Oliver Chris/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

It is common knowledge that the holiday season in general and Christmas in particular can be a pretty stressful time. Digging deep into one's pockets to pay for it all is one thing; coping with your family is another. 
Not that money is an issue for the Bunker family, in whose middle-class suburban home Alan Ayckbourn sets his 1980 play Season's Greetings, revived by the National Theatre in yet another of their unsparing productions.
Neville Bunker (Neil Stuke) has a successful business and, on the surface, appears to be a happily married family man. So does his close friend and erstwhile colleague Eddie (Marc Wooton). But this is Ayckbourn territory, and their wives Belinda (Catherine Tate) and the pregnant Pattie (Katherine Parkinson) are wretchedly unhappy. And who can blame them? Both husbands are selfish, stultifyingly boring and treat them with an indifference bordering on misogyny. 
The Bunker's Christmas guest-list-from-hell also includes Neville's inebriated sister Phyllis (Jenna Russell) and her husband Bernard (Mark Gatiss), a woefully incompetent GP whose annual party-piece is a puppet show aimed at and dreaded by the kids.
Most dysfunctional of all is Neville's uncle Harvey (David Troughton), a thoroughly objectionable ex-security guard psychopathically obsessed with knives and guns and whose idea of a great time is watching violent movies on TV. 
The final two guests at least rub shoulders with normalcy. They are Belinda's spinster sister Rachel (Nicola Walker) and Clive (Oliver Chris), a handsome young novelist whose first book has just entered the best-seller chart at number 17, and with whom Rachel is hoping to have an affair. Unfortunately for her, though, and in characteristic Ayckbourn fashion, her expectations (together with everyone else's) remain unfulfilled and she is doomed to disappointment.
More than once has Yuletide provided the author with the potential for bringing out the worst in people. (Remember Absurd Person Singular (1972), which is set over three successive Christmas eves?)
In Season's Greetings it does so again, re-enforcing Sartre's dictum that hell is other people. And although Ayckbourn does so with malign cruelty, he compensates by providing a series of hilarious set pieces that soften your dislike of the characters. He also, on occasion, stretches credibility to its limits.
There is no way, in reality, that Bernard, the totally inept GP would ever have passed his medical exams any more than his constantly inebriated, thoroughly incompetent wife could have prepared a roast-lamb dinner for nine. Nor would the personable novelist Clive have agreed to spend Christmas with a houseful of strangers and with a woman he was in no way attracted to.
But hey, this is a farce, so what does it matter? The cast – notably Mark Gattis, David Troughton and Catherine Tate – are premier cru, and director Marianne Elliott, working on an over-elaborate set by Rae Smith, maintains just the right pace, making sure the laughs at the characters' expense never stop.
Apart from Mr and Mrs Bunker and their guests, a good time was


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