Festive fun with an icy edge

Season's Greetings

Wolverhampton Grand

****

FAMILY Christmases are full of hopes and dreams, of traditions, memories, good company, presents, festive wines and spirits and good will to all men – train wrecks waiting to happen really.

This latest timely revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Christmas classic takes us to the family Christmas of  the dysfunctional Bunker family, somewhere in John Betjeman's suburbia and there is plenty of ha has among the ho, ho hos in the Bill Kenwright production.

We have Belinda., played by Glynis Barber, who is drifting her way aimlessly through a stale marriage to Neville (Mark Healy). She spends Christmas trying to be noticed by not-interested Nev and constantly dressing the tree.

Nev meanwhile would rather play with anything electrical or mechanical hidden away in his shed than take an interest in anything so mundane as his wife. Still being married after nine years is a happy marriage in Nev's eyes.

Then we have Nev's friend and former employee Eddie (Ricky Groves) who has a hero worship of his ex-boss and follows him around, ignoring his wife Pattie (Barbara Drennan) who is pregnant with three kids already and has decided she doesn't want any more children, including the one she is carrying.

Bernard (Christopher Timothy) pushes the boundaries of his excruciatingly bad puppet shows ever wider while Pattie (Barbara Drennan) and Harvey (Dennis Lill) wait eagerly for . . . the end 

Nev's sister Phyllis (Sue Wallace) meanwhile is a lush who creates havoc in the kitchen – she  cooks the Christmas Eve meal each year - as she becomes tired and emotional as a newt amid the cooking sherry while her husband Bernard (Christopher Timothy) stoically soldiers on.

Bernard is notable for two achievements in his life. He is the world's worst doctor and he also performs the world's worst puppet show every Boxing Day for the kids of the Bunker household and their friends – a treat which is the stuff of legend like . . . the Black Death or Spanish Flu. Timothy's comic timing is superb in his truly dreadful puppet show.

Then there is Belinda's sister, the decisive Rachel (Jenny Funnell), an old(ish) maid and happy with it or maybe not or maybe she is, or not, who brings along a guest, Clive (Mathew Bose) in what she is hoping or not hoping will be the start of a relationship . . . who knows, she certainly doesn't. Clive is a famous novelist who no one has heard of and who has only written one book which no one has read.

And amid it all is Nev's uncle Harvey (Dennis Lill), ex-security guard and your average hang 'em and flog ‘em right wing bigot who decries the violence in society yet revels in it on TV and has a knife tucked down his sock – just in case.

So it's Merry Christmas! Just like any family gathering behind the lace curtains in any Acacia Avenue in the land really and that is where much of the fun comes from. These are characters, exaggerated maybe, that are recognisable as spectres of Christmas past, or even present, that come out of our own cupboards or are familiar to us from friends and neighbours when the festive season arrives.

And fun there is a plenty from a quality cast who sparkle like the lights on the tree in a script littered with asides and home truths – some for people of a certain age.

For example Nev tells us that when you have been drinking  “a glass  of water before you go to bed means you don't get a hangover – you don't get much sleep either . . .”  Three times a night is a burden rather than a boast after a certain age.

Finding the point where happy families all starts to go wrong is difficult.

You can never be too careful according to Harvey, best to keep a nice throwing knife tucked down you sock as an incredulous Clive (Mathew Bose) looks on

It never seemed to be going right and in the descent to the New Year we find Harvey has decided Clive is an obvious homosexual because he hangs around with train drivers - blame Phyllis for that one – and is a looter trying to steal presents.

Meanwhile Belinda sees Clive as a chance of sexual escape from her unfulfilling marriage and the pair would have fulfilled something had it not been for the drumming rabbit to go off under the tree – you have to be there for that one.

They had already tried the sitting room “not in front of the telly” and the kitchen “I'm to old to do it in the kitchen” so it was left to lust under the tree in the hall - until the rabbit work everyone up.

Bernard is determined to go ahead with the puppet show, which has more sets and staging than Les Mis, which ends in a fight with Harvey, while on Christmas Day Rachel doesn't want a physical relationship with Clive but by December 27 she is ready to leap into bed with him . . . maybe. That is until Harvey takes a hand.

The kids are all kept just out of sight and amid a host of laughs there is an underlying current of a more serious play.

We have three women in unhappy relationships where their particular dreams ended long ago, or in the case of Rachel, have never really seen the light of day, or the passion of night. Phyllis, in a childless marriage, has found her escape in drink.

Bernard has come to realise he is a failure as a doctor, puppeteer and even husband, Eddie left Nev to start up on his own, failed, and is now looking to Nev for a job again and even Harvey is left to question the black and white world he lives in.

Clive is the outsider who falls madly in lust with a frustrated, bored suburban housewife offering the promise of opportunity. Nev, meanwhile, is happy tinkering away in his shed, hiding away and pretending nothing has happened. Three broken relationships, one that never started and a lonely old bigot.

There are some oddities though. Does anyone know of anywhere, in Britain at least, where people don't give out Christmas presents until Boxing Day?

This seems to be the tradition in the Bunker family and I could not see any point in changing the habits and traditions of millions. It was not necessary for plot and there didn't even seem to be a valid theatrical reason for it.

Bernard, clutching box of theatrical bits, a mere fraction of his puppet show paraphernalia, warns Clive to beware of mad, bad Harvey

And then there is the ending, which rather like Eric Morecambe's Grieg's Piano Concerto, is a few yards short.

It is almost as if by December 27, rather like a Christmas turkey, it has all run out of steam.

The play builds to a dramatic climax and just stops.  It is almost as if someone has shouted from the side of the stage: “Time up lads, end it and get off.” 

Nev goes back to his tinkering, pretends nothing has ever happened, Belinda tidies the tree and everyone presumably lives happily unhappy ever after.

I suppose the end does make you think of what really was going through hearts and minds . . . still, it was all good fun, beautifully acted to create a family of characters you could believe and even recognise and with five weeks to go to the audience's own version of  Season's Greetings that might just be a frightening thought. To 26-11-11

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile from atop the tree . . .

****

WHEN family and friends of Neville and Belinda Bunker get together on Christmas Eve, it was supposed to be in preparation for a happy time with the children in Alan Ayckbourn's hilarious comedy.

 But in the build-up to the festivities it's the adults who misbehave, with alcohol-fuelled arguments, near-infidelity alongside the Christmas tree, a row over a puppet show, two eccentric, warring uncles, and even a shooting!

 So there is plenty of material for a superb cast to get their teeth into, and their timing is just about perfect in a series of remarkable situations, some of which will no doubt be familiar to people in the audience.

Christopher Timothy, of All Creatures Great and Small fame, is a delight as Uncle Bernard, a not-too-successful doctor whose annual puppet show is dreaded by the everyone present but is a comedy classic, and Denis Lill excels in the role of Uncle Harvey, a retired security guard with a nose for trouble.

Glynis Barber sparkles as frustrated housewife, Belinda, ready for a fling with her sister's friend Clive (Matthew Bose)...but in which part of the house?

Directed by Robin Herford, this happy Christmas tale runs to  26.11.11

Paul Marston

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