Season’s Greetings

New Vic theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, until Saturday 26 October

We’re frequently told nowadays that we are living in anxious, unprecedented times. Perhaps my fellow theatre lovers are ready for a thoroughly precedented night out, I thought, as I pulled into a full car park on the opening night of Season’s Greetings at the New Vic.

Alan Ayckbourn’s very funny play premiered in 1980 and for this revival, which he directs himself in his eighty-first year, he has recreated the 70’s décor for his multi-roomed set with a fine eye. It’s familiar and undeniably sad. Just like the nine characters – family and friends – condemned to celebrate together.

“You may think you’ve had a bad Christmas but wait until you see this one,” Ayckbourn writes. But in the flaws of his characters and the mishaps we anticipate and then see mercilessly developed, there is clearly an element of the familiar that primes the audience. As the farce unfolds there’s no holding back the laughter.

Phyllis (Eileen Battye) and Clive (Andy Cryer) All images by Tony Bartholomew

Flighty sot Phyllis, in charge of the first evening’s meal, is “on the kitchen table having a little nosebleed.” Heavily pregnant Pattie is not sure she wants her fourth child. Her husband Eddie mistakenly thinks he’s been offered a managerial job by Neville, who’s heavily focussed on fixing broken toys. Neville’s wife Belinda tries to convince herself she still loves him, while throwing herself at Clive, the guest of Rachel — who feels the need to tell him that she is neither frigid nor a virgin. Uncle Harvey, ex security officer, has meanwhile bought guns for all the children.

Pattie (Mercy Ojelade), Belinda (Frances Marshall) and Eddie (Michael Lyle)

It’s beautifully directed: the diction is crisp and clear, the action tight, and the momentum assuredly maintained. Each member of the cast succeeds in creating the deep sense of sadness in their character while also, and often simultaneously, maximising the laughs their predicament generates.

Phyllis, Pattie, Neville (Matt Addis), Rachel (Rachel Caffrey), Bernard (Leigh Symonds) and Harvey (Bill Champion)

This is epitomised by Leigh Symonds as Bernard, whose wincing movements back and forth, hugely solicitous of his  wife’s offstage cooking, lay the groundwork for his much dreaded annual puppet show. We hear that last year he did Ali Baba – introducing all forty thieves with ten minute intervals between each as he changed scenery. This year he’s planning Three Little Pigs and is repeatedly asked, “Just the three of them?”

When it finally arrives, Bernard’s puppet show is a masterpiece of its kind. It’s worth buying a programme to read Ayckbourn’s hilarious account of its genesis in his own experience.

Yes, it’s all precedented. That’s surely why we all laughed at Rachel’s calm, understated response as all hell broke loose in front of her: “Oh dear; dramas?”