Review: Season’s Greetings – Norwich Theatre Royal

You can choose your friends but not your family. Despite the blood ties it’s surprising that clan gatherings don’t come with a health warning. Or at least that’s the impression Alan Ayckbourn would give us with his bleak look at the familial festive gathering.

Hostess Belinda is frantically trying to marshal her husband and assembled guests over four chaotic days over Christmas. It’s a toss up what will last longer, the turkey or the strained relationships.

Her husband would much rather be in his workshop, her sister-in-law has only a slight grasp on reality, Uncle Harvey is a gun totting television addict, and her sister has invited her latest mystery man to join the dysfunctional family for Christmas. Add in a pregnant best friend who is barely on speaking terms with her alcoholic husband and the one game unlikely to be played is happy families.

Ayckbourn’s piece is now 30 years old and, although the themes of family strife still resonate, it does at times feel more like a vintage sit-com rather than biting humour.

While much of this is down to Ayckbourn’s gentle script, director Robin Herford plays the piece fairly low key, allowing the absurdity of the characters to drive the comedy. While it provides a naturalistic approach, creating scenes that many in the audience will be able to identify with, it does sometimes underplay the comic potential. There’s a fine balance between turning observational comedy into farce but the notch could be turned up a couple of marks here. There is an undercurrent that behind the tinsel and fairy lights barely repressed emotions are ripe to explode, though in this production you never really get to see the spark that will ignite the pyrotechnics.

Glynis Barber gives her Belinda an air of the perfect housewife though, just below the surface, the desire for a precision planned gathering burns a yearning, unrequited desire for love.

Mark Healy as husband Neville gives a subtle performance, capturing a man who would rather play with electronics than face his marital issues.

There are nice cameos from Sue Wallace as Phyllis, the drunk sister-in-law whose antics in the kitchen instil fear into all the guest and from Barbara Drennan as Pattie, abandoned by her husband to look after a brood of (unseen) unruly children.

There isn’t really one character here that you would want to spend any time with, let alone be stuck in a house over Christmas with, yet one has to wonder how many people in the audience recognise character types in their own families.

Despite the somewhat underplayed comedy and a dreadfully weak ending, Season’s Greetings allows us all to relive those countless stressful family gatherings and take solace in the fact that, however bad those festivities may have seen at the time, compared with this group of social misfits it was indeed a Merry Christmas.

Originally written for The Public Reviews

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