Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand. — Mark Twain
The middle of August is a good time to watch Season’s Greetings, one of Alan Ayckbourn’s best plays. Away from the overindulgence, family togetherness, starlight and tinsel we can happily admit that in reality Christmas can sometimes be a bit rubbish. Relationships which are rubbing along fine when they are not put under pressure are forced, limping, into the spotlight, people who really don’t like each other much are forced to spend long periods in the same room and somewhere far away there is a perfect Christmas happening. A Christmas which nobody within your own gathering is quite living up to- still less the hosts themselves.
All this is perfectly captured by Alan Ayckbourn’s classic Season’s Greetings. It is one of his best plays and well overdue for a revival at the Stephen Joseph- this is the first since the original production in 1981. It is beautifully constructed and the set pieces- particularly those at the end of each act- are well earned and perfectly set up. At his best Ayckbourn captures a searing blend of poignancy and laughter- we laugh out loud and wince in the same moment- and it takes real skill from his cast to put this across. This isn’t simply comedy and it would be too easy to just play it as that. Bernard, the hapless doctor who really only wants to be liked, beautifully played by Leigh Symonds, is a perfect example. We begin by ridiculing him as we watch him in one of Ayckbourn’s best set pieces, rehearsing his annual puppet show- a treat that nobody wants to see- and end by wincing at his searing self knowledge while still laughing. There is a lot of quiet desperation in Ayckbourn’s women characters and in Season’s Greetings it takes the form of Rachel, Belinda and Pattie. Rachel is in a futile relationship with writer Clive and Belinda- the hostess- also longs for him. She just wants someone to notice her and think about her, as her husband certainly doesn’t. Pattie is pregnant again with a child that she really doesn’t want and a husband who isn’t interested in the children that they already have let alone another one on the way. Rachel Caffrey, Frances Marshall and Mercy Ojelade are all very touching in the roles as they work hard to keep things together and search for a happy ending that is never going to come. In contrast the quiet desperation of Bernard’s wife Phyllis, a nice performance by Eileen Battye, has been eased by self medicating with booze. Alongside the laughter gender injustices within the family are laid bare, well before the era of me too. The men are in charge here and they have done little to deserve it. It is far more telling to lay this bare through laughter than in a feminist rant.
Of course the direction is flawless as the play has been staged by Ayckbourn himself. The pace is kept up and everything runs like clockwork. The set shows us three rooms on stage simultaneously with cut off walls and this allows our attention to move from room to room quickly as the focus changes. This is a really well thought out revival, sharply funny and as relevant as ever. We have all known Christmases like this.