ALAN Ayckbourn is one of Britain’s most popular playwrights and probably the favourite living writer with amateur groups (run a very close second by the other Alan – Bennett). Warminster’s Athenaeum Limelight Players chose his Seasons Greetings for their December show at the atmospheric old theatre – a black comedy that tarnishes the tinsel on the chocolate box image of happy Christmas.
Ayckbourn’s plays are usually full of one-liners, although few are out and out comedies. He captures the flawed nature of human beings with an almost unnerving accuracy and sometimes you wonder if he doesn’t much like people. But that’s true to life too – we all have times when we don’t much like other people!
Seasons Greetings is set in the large family home of a successful middle-class couple, Neville and Belinda Bunker. We know it’s large, although the action passes entirely on the ground floor, because there are 12 (unseen) children, plus Eddie (Nev’s best friend) and pregnant Pattie, Phyllis (Nev’s sister) and Bernard (her doctor husband who makes puppet shows), Nev’s appalling auntie Henrietta, Rachel (Belinda’s intense, unmarried sister) and Clive, a writer, who has been invited by Rachel.
Try to imagine spending Christmas with that many relatives!
The stage is set for chaos even before we begin to realise quite how dysfunctional this family is, without the added stress of a total stranger in their midst.
Richard Clarke (who played the title role in ALP’s impressive Macbeth earlier this year) makes his debut as a director at the Ath, but his long experience directing with Salisbury’s Studio Theatre is evident in his masterly handling of this play, which can so easily seem heartless.
In the many times I have seen Seasons Greetings – including some very funny productions – I have never felt sympathy for anyone, with the possible exceptions of the hopeless Rachel (Maria Giuliani) and the hapless Clive, the writer (Jonathan Saunt-Lord).
The director has shown real empathy for the Bunkers, so that gradually we begin to see the loneliness, the insecurity and the lack of confidence behind the facade of some of the characters.
Belinda (Hayley Sheppard) is glamorous and efficient and a good cook – but she is deeply insecure and desperate to find out whether Neville (Tony South) still loves her.
Pattie (Bethan Davies) fears that Eddie (Marc Cox) doesn’t want this coming baby, but she knows that he needs her and depends on her. We feel for her – and for well-meaning but incompetent Eddie.
Bernard (Julian Porter) seems full of confidence, a professional man who loves to entertain the children – but his frailty is exposed, under the brutal ridicule of the horrible old aunt (Barbara Maxwell making the most of this ghastly racist bully, who is usually played as Henry, by a male actor).
His wife, Phyllis (Lisa Shuckford), a shrew who messes everything up, shows a kinder side and interestingly, it is Rachel, the no-hope spinster that we all pity, who emerges as a stronger character with some self-knowledge.
By drawing sympathetic performances from his cast – particularly the four younger women – the director has given both depth and pathos to the play. It is very funny and very black – but you have this feeling that it’s how they live, and they will all be doing much the same thing next year. Possibly not with Clive!