Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings opens at the Stephen Joseph Theatre: it's a glorious gift, wonderfully wrapped

Alan Ayckbourn's tragi-comedy has opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre
Alan Ayckbourn's tragi-comedy has opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre

Christmas has come early to Scarborough with the revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s tragi-comedy Season’s Greetings.

As the sun beats down on the town at record-breaking high temperatures, the air at the Stephen Joseph Theatre is distinctly frosty.

A festive play might seem an odd choice for a summer season in rep – but its themes are typical Ayckbourn and are relevant any time of year.

Season’s Greetings first premiered in the Round when the Stephen Joseph’s home was Westwood in 1980.

This is the first time it has been done at the Westborough building.

The action takes place in the home of Neville and Belinda Bunker during Christmas of 1979 – there has been no attempt to update the production. Why bother when ‘retro’ is the new modern anyway?

They are playing host to his sister Phyllis and her husband Bernard; their friends Eddie and his wife Pattie; his Uncle Harvey; Belinda’s sister Rachel and her novelist friend Clive.

The children, often referred to, remain, thankfully, unseen and unheard.

It’s Christmas Eve; the children are in bed, the presents are under the tree, drinks are being poured, the drunk aunty is in the kitchen ruining the dinner, the stressed hostess is trying to keep the peace, a guest is nervously awaited, dad is assembling a new toy and one member of the family is watching a film that is repeated every Christmas.

So far, so as it is in millions of homes every Yuletide.

Except ... Uncle Harvey is a borderline gun-obsessed psychopath; aunty Phyllis is a lush; Bernard is a well-meaning failure; Rachel is a frigid depressive; Pattie and Eddie are expecting a fourth child neither of them want, Neville is an indifferent husband; Belinda is a bored, sex-starved housewife about to encounter a randy writer.

This a collection of people who should never get together let alone at Christmas time when expectations are heightened and booze flows.

The result is explosive farce – which reduces the audience to hysterics before bringing them down to earth with a sober bump as Ayckbourn makes them realise, no matter what has happened, it will be the same next year.

Emotions are strewn about like baubles from an overturned Christmas tree – some never be retrieved and returned to their box.

This is a savage comedy, raw and brutal observation on the nature of family, friendship, love and loneliness and the damage failure, jealousy and disappointed does to the human –and festive – spirit.

The cast – Matt Addis, Frances Marshall, Eileen Battye, Bill Champion, Leigh Symonds, Rachel Caffrey, Michael Lyle, Mercy Ojelade and Andy Cryer.

All are magnificent but special mention to Symonds as Bernard – the doctor who could not diagnose a cold. His performance is full of poignancy and tenderness.

The build up to the annual puppet show he puts on for the children is relentless – and Symonds delivery of the punchline is superlative.

The disastrous show – think an even more awful – Lonely Goatherd is made more hilarious by the comments of Harvey – played brilliantly brutish by Champion.

Cryer, too, is a stand-out as the light to the blue-touch paper he walks in on. He is at one and the same time an observer of and the catalyst to catastrophe.

Season’s Greetings is a perfect present, a glorious gift, perfectly wrapped.

It runs, in rep, until September 28.

Tickets: 01723 370541 and online at www.sjt.uk.com