The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Winter 2010-2011
Season's Greetings is not one of Alan Ayckbourn's best plays, but B-level Ayckbourn is better than most others can manage, and the ironically seasonal comedy offers a full evening of laughs.
As with all his dark comedies, Ayckbourn introduces you to a collection of totally recognisable and only slightly skewed characters, here an extended family on a Christmas weekend.
Predictably the hostess is frazzled, the host is of no use, one relative drinks a bit too much and insists on helping in the kitchen, and another parks himself in front of the television and doesn't move.
Yet another is a self-styled children's entertainer who persists in putting on his dreadful and interminable puppet show, an outsider guest is loved hopelessly by one single sister-in-law and lusted after by one married one, and the seemingly only-slightly-eccentric uncle turns out to be a real loony.
When Ayckbourn is at his very best, his genius lies in first encouraging us to laugh at characters like these and the farcical situations he moves them into, and then only later - sometimes with a real shock - make us see that they are genuinely unhappy and that the cartoon figures we've been laughing at are real human beings.
And what keeps Season's Greetings from the high level of, say, Absurd Person Singular or The Norman Conquests is that Ayckbourn shows his hand too soon.
He lets us see the marital tensions, frustrations and lonelinesses almost from the start, which means that there aren't too many revelations and shocks of recognition to come.
I hasten to say that this is a criticism to make only if one holds this play up to the standard of Ayckbourn at his best. By any other standard, the play is a complete success - consistently funny, occasionally touching, and filled with 'Oh, God! That's just like cousin Henry!' moments that will either strike a very personal laugh or (if you're cousin Henry) very personal cringe.
In what is essentially an ensemble piece, Catherine Tate provides much of the core energy of the comedy as the hostess, her voice and accent only occasionally slipping into echoes of her TV characters.
Mark Gatiss is droll as the hapless puppeteer and Oliver Chris nicely conveys the out-of-his-depth awkwardness of the outsider.
Marianne Elliott's direction stumbles a bit on the more physically farcical moments, but does create the essential-to-Ayckbourn sense of real people in a real family
After Christmas may indeed be the best time to see Season's Greetings - it runs through March - since it is not only a delight in itself but may help you look back at your own family get-together with a comic perspective.
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