A tragedian, despite himself

The National Theatre serves up Alan Ayckbourn without the jokes.

With the snow long since turned to rain and the turkey breast curling at the corners, it seemed as good a time as any to check out the rancid doings of Alan Ayckbourn's middle classes at the National Theatre. Season's Greetings imprisons its cast in the festive period, in which the Bunker family are playing host to various friends, in-laws and the obligatory iffy uncle. The wild card in the pack is an outsider, Clive, a sort of boyfriend to Nicola Bunker's sister Rachel and catalyst for change in the stuffy domestic scene.

The play is some 30 years old and, boy, does it show. The turkey is not the only thing with a period feel at this time of year: Ayckbourn's comedy is distinctly gamey. Gags both tired and tiresome vie for air-time; it's a while since I've seen homosexuality represented by a limp wrist and laughed at. Technically, it was the bigot that was laughed at, but still . . .

I must stress that I was in a tiny minority at the National, where Ayckbourn acolytes of the third age were laughing themselves insensible at the rantings of the fishy uncle and -- oh, heavens! -- the drunken guest tripping over a step and banging his head on a newel post! One wondered if they were looking at Rae Smith's meticulously aspirational set -- each gilt-framed picture crowned with a Christmas corsage -- with a gaze untroubled by irony. Were they looking at their own lounges?

If so, their eyes would have had to hurry over Smith's shrewd undermining of the scene, which peeled at the edges and appropriately left the cross-sections of the building visible. Behind the jolly wallpaper repeats was effectively so much rubble.

And here's the crux: what both the designer and the director, Marianne Elliott, have tuned into is the terrible sadness of Ayckbourn's play. The jokes may have gone off but the tragedy time travels beautifully: disappointment is the uninvited Christmas guest and various characters burn with it. Katherine Parkinson's heavily pregnant Pattie has a voice that's too weary even to attempt intonation. Catherine Tate, as Belinda Bunker, is truly mesmerising, her comic lines freighted with anger and sorrow.

Magnificent in plum satin, she sets out to seduce Clive, the picture-perfect Oliver Chris: a fashion plate in beige slacks, with an affable grin apt to freeze in panic at the situations he finds himself in. Belinda is squeamish about doing it in front of the TV screen: "I couldn't. Not in front of the telly. Somewhere else." In this household (as in many others), the unseeing eye of the small screen is the hearth of the home, the inviolate locus of domestic bliss. What Clive represents for Belinda is not merely the opportunity of a fumble under the Christmas tree but a different and enriching world, that of the written word, for Clive is a "writer".

At any point in Elliott's production, there is likely to be a character sitting on their own amid the festivities, serving as a mute counterweight. Belinda's glowering, virginal sister, Rachel (Nicola Walker), haunts the living room like a grim Madonna, a silent reproach to the business of reproduction; David Troughton as the awful uncle snoozes unregarded in the dining room; Clive glumly sits on his attic bed in his Santa outfit while the house erupts underneath him.

And everywhere in this house is failure: failure to help oneself or to help each other. Bernard the brother-in-law is a failed husband, a failed puppeteer (witness his execrable "Three Little Pigs") and a failed doctor. Neville Bunker's best mate, Eddie, offers what must rank as one of the most etiolated olive branches in theatrical history to his gravid and distraught wife (who has been savagely abused for failing to hand the puppeteer the right little pig). In a moment of unmistakable, if ineffectual, tenderness, he offers this sublime inarticulacy: "If you want me, I'll be out with Nev."

By not getting the knockabout comedy, you are only getting half a play, of course. It is off-balance, literally lame and wearyingly long, not made any shorter by the enthusiasm of the Ayckbourn acolytes. But the dark, bitter pill that remains does have its own peculiar quality. Is Ayckbourn a tragedian, despite himself?

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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