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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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt