Review: Season’s Greetings (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, December 3

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but the current touring production of Alan Ayckbourn’s *Season’s Greetings* might leave your festive goodwill a little strained.

A revival of the 1980 play at the National Theatre a year ago must have persuaded producer Bill Kenwright that there was mileage in this black comedy, but this new version of the play leaves you feeling a bit like a child unwrapping a cardigan on Christmas Day when they wanted a Nintendo.

Directed by Robin Herford, a stalwart of Ayckbourn’s Scarborough company in the 70s and 80s and who appeared in the original production himself, this is a production where one senses the cast are trying very hard indeed (possibly too hard) but the appealing cracker fails to go off with a bang.

Despite the writer himself claiming the play tries to present a rosier view of Christmas than his earlier Absurd Person Singular, this is familiar Ayckbourn territory, where hopes and dreams are shattered by thoughtless words, suburban neurosis rules, and a family thrown together for the most dysfunctional Yuletide ever, each disliking the other more and more as time passes.

The problem is that the characters aren’t likeable, meaning it is hard to laugh at or with them, and some woeful miscasting here, especially with the ages of some, doesn’t help as the mounting frustrations, the childish behaviour, and family feuding tend to irritate rather than amuse. It is noticeable that the audience breaks into a round of apathy rather than applause between each scene.

Glynis Barber is looking great and makes the most of hostess Belinda, her Christmas wish list being for some excitement and thrills away from husband Neville (Mark Healy excellent, intent on mending anything but a failing relationship); Denis Lill is good as bigoted Uncle Harvey, the worst kind of houseguest, more interested in a festive battle royal than the Queen’s speech; and Christopher Timothy, a joy as kindly but ineffective Uncle Bernard, whose puppet show comes with every string attached.

If the play serves as a timely reminder that blood ties can lead to high blood pressure then it would be churlish not to award it at least the star from the top of the Christmas tree. But then again, most people will be going through their own version of this story with their own set of misfits in four weeks’ time and may not welcome the reminder.

David Guest