Ayckbourn at the National,
stuffed with TV comedy actors, and a Christmas show to boot. It’s not at
the radical end of Nick Hytner’s programming, certainly. But I’ve
always had a soft spot for this play, since seeing the BBC’s 1986
production of the play with Nicky Henson, Anna Massey, Geoffrey Palmer
and Peter Vaughan. It was one of the bleakest Christmas shows I’d seen.
The story unfolds over the Christmas
period, taking us from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day and Boxing
Day, ending early on 27 December. We’re at the home of Neville and
Belinda Bunker and they’ve invited Neville’s sister, Phyllis, and her
husband Bernard; Belinda’s sister Rachel, and her friend, Clive, a
novelist. Neville’s mate Eddie and his wife, Pattie, and Neville’s
uncle, Harvey. They always spend Christmas together and are used to
Rachel’s failure to get a man, Pattie’s perpetual pregnancy, Phyllis’s
drunkenness and Bernard’s staggeringly dull puppet shows. All goes
according to plan, though Clive’s appearance is a catalyst for chaos
when he and Belinda are discovered having a noisy shag under the tree
early on Boxing Day morning. Harvey destroys the puppet play and, later,
shoots Clive, believing him to be a thief.
It’s a very funny play and it becomes
emotionally more demanding as it goes on. What Ayckbourn does so well is
capture the mixture of ridiculousness and despair in these ordinary
lives. In Harvey, he’s created another of those quasi-fascist suburban
tyrants like Vince in Way Upstream and Sidney Hopcroft in Absurd Person Singular.
The play leads up to the devastating moment when Harvey gleefully
smashes up the puppet show; we’ve been laughing at it the whole way
through the play but Ayckbourn turns our feelings on a sixpence.
Bernard’s heartfelt rage against Harvey isn’t much on the page but it’s
definitive in performance; the small man standing up to the bully, and,
of course, the artist standing up to the philistine:
You are a loathsome man, Harvey, you really are. You’re almost totally negative, do you know that? And that’s such an easy thing to be, isn’t it? So long as you stay negative, you’re absolutely safe from laughter or criticism because you’ve never made anything or done anything that people can criticise.
Bernard’s a man hemmed in by his
awkwardness in the family, his patience, his politesse. Here he lets rip
- petulantly, to be sure, but compared to his usual small talk, this is
What you immediately see on stage is
that it’s an ensemble piece. Ayckbourn had spend years choreographing
his characters around a theatre-in-the-round, sometimes, as in The Norman Conquests,
across multiple plays. Here we see several rooms, lots of simultaneous
action, and plenty of room for very truthful acting. Nicola Walker and
Neil Stuke are particularly good (I spent a couple of minutes just
watching Neil Stuke fix a toy racing car and it’s a lovely, detailed
performance, full of detail and precision). Nicola, as Rachel, is an
alienated soul who we first see pretending that Clive’s non-appearance
is of absolutely no concern or interest to her and persuading us of the
exact opposite; later she has a rather awkward bit of verbal comedy as
she tortuously tries to give Clive up and then tries to offer herself to
him, without ever really saying what she means; Nicola Walker somehow
invests that with real feeling and meaning. Neil Stuke pulls off one of
Ayckbourn’s most audacious handbrake turns; he’s spent the whole play
oblivious to his marriage and the chaos around him and has been
dismissing the discovery of his wife and Clive as a drunken mistake.
Clive tries to protest that he wasn’t drunk:
NEVILLE (quietly and pleasantly) Let’s put it this way. If I thought for one moment that you’d been down there on my floor in my hall under my Christmas tree, trying to screw my wife while you were both stone-cold sober, that would put a very different complexion of things. because in that case, I promise you I would start to take you to pieces bit by bit. And as for her, she’d find herself back on the Social Security before she had time time to pull her knickers up.
Neil delivers the brutality of it, the
leering misogyny, with unmistakeable force, without raising his voice
and losing the perpetual wry smile on his face. Mark Gatiss, of the
comedians, is by far the best, giving Bernard dignity despite a good
deal of absurdity. His outburst is heroic, defiant: Antigone in a
cardigan. The weak link is Catherine Tate, who just does funny voices
most of the night. Her attempted seduction of Clive is played for laughs
and we don’t engage with it, nor do we see what is unsatisfying in her
marriage. There’s a short sequence towards the end of scene two when she
tries to interest Neville in a discussion of their marriage (‘I mean,
maybe love’s too strong a word to use. Perhaps it’s friendship I’m
talking about. We’re still friends. That’s what I mean.’) which should
be a moment missed, a point of genuinely attempted contact that was not
seen; instead it’s played on the surface and the whole picture of the
marriage suffers. It shows, really, that when Ayckbourn’s good, as he is
here, he really needs acting and truthfulness.
I wonder if we’ll ever see Ayckbourn the way the French sometimes do, as a contemporary naturalist anatomising middle-class pain; instead, despite almost everything he’s written, we seem determined to see him as a boulevardier, as if he hadn’t written anything but clones of Relatively Speaking. Perhaps his theatrical instincts are too sound; maybe he is so good at knowing what pleases an audience, and so smoothly effective at delivering it, that we don’t feel it going down, whereas in translation, where there’s always a burr, a remainder, an adjustment, there’s time and space to feel what is difficult and uncomfortable in his work. It’s possible to be too good a playwright and maybe Ayckbourn’s our eminent example.