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5 January 2011

A tragedian, despite himself

The National Theatre serves up Alan Ayckbourn without the jokes.

By Gina Allum

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.

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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?