This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
Fairy lights. Carol services. Mince pies. Mulled wine and Alan Ayckbourn’s farcical comedy Season’s Greetings about a dysfunctional family Christmas. All sure signs that 25 December is just around the corner. Oxford Theatre Guild’s production of Ayckbourn’s classic play, although it features more furious rows than festive cheer, is nonetheless a warm-hearted, exuberant, and thoroughly welcome addition to Oxford’s theatrical advent calendar.
Jo Lainchbury and Richard Readshaw play Belinda and Neville, a middle-aged married couple coping with the stresses of putting up a host of friends and relatives over Christmas. There is the crotchety Bernard and the constantly steaming Phyllis (Nick Quartley and Moya Hughes). There is the weary Eddie and the fidgety, pregnant Pattie (Rob Hall and Tara Lacey). There is the anxious, bookish Rachel and her anxious, bookish writer boyfriend Clive (Meriel Patrick and James Silk). And there is Harvey (Chris Harris), the elderly, gun-toting bigot of a grandad. As emotions run high, the angry words begin to fly and the festive spirit begins to catastrophically deteriorate, with a black humour and a pathos that is quintessentially Ayckbourn.
Lainchbury and Readshaw are thoroughly believable as the central couple. He is every bit the absent-minded, DIY-obsessed husband and she is every bit the middle-class, middle-brow wife, her frustration with him occasionally peeking out from a façade of chirrupy cheeriness. Even when she throws herself at Clive in a semi-drunken fit of lust, she does so with one eye on the state of the furniture.
Elsewhere, Quartley’s Bernard is enjoyable in all his pathetic earnestness and Harris’ Harvey delights with all his withering put-downs. A scene in which the former desperately tries to stage a dress rehearsal of his annual puppet show with the latter pouring scorn from the audience is perhaps the production’s finest. Silk also deserves mention; his Clive, who ends up being pursued by all three women in the piece – the reluctant Romeo to their stressed Juliets – is believably dismayed by the chaos that erupts around him.
For all the cast’s bravado and tenacity, however, this is far from a polished production. Although Simon Tavener’s direction is competent and confident, there is a distinct lack of vivacity throughout. With a little more snappiness, a little more exuberance, Oxford Theatre Guild would leave their audience wanting more, rather than outstaying their welcome, as they verge on doing at present.
Despite this, Ayckbourn’s pithy, witty, British humour shines through and Oxford Theatre Guild should be applauded for their enthusiasm and enterprise. It may not be high-class drama, but it is an enjoyable two hours of tame comedy that, despite its somewhat bleak outlook, leaves one smiling and in a thoroughly Christmassy mood.