Alan Ayckbourn is, without doubt, a master of observational, family-orientated, comedy pieces. His characters always have something about them to which an audience can relate and the comic situations, although occasionally straying into the absurd, are believable and quite frequently loaded with drama and pathos.
All that is necessary to take the words from the page and transform them into a theatrical masterpiece is a cast of consummate professionals with great comic timing and the ability to develop their characters to engage with the audience. Sadly, this is where Ian Dickens’ production falls flat on its comic face.
It may be something to do with the fact that this particular tour is so short, but the piece seems dreadfully under-rehearsed.As the actors fail to engage with each other in the way that a “family” should, they struggle to deliver the work as it was intended to be seen. With one or two notable exceptions, the performances are quite “wooden” and some fantastic comic lines are delivered so flatly that it takes the audience a while to spot the comedy, and react to it.
The action takes place during a disfunctional Christmas gathering at the house of do-it-yourself addict Neville David Callister and his frustrated wife Belinda Michelle Morris. Their guests include Neville’s accident-prone alcoholic sister Phyllis Karen Ford and her hapless doctor husband Bernard John D. Collins, together with Belinda’s spinster sister Rachel Claire Fisher who has recently become platonically involved with young writer Clive Nick Ricketts, who had also accepted the festive invitation.
The final three guests are family friends Eddie Peter Amory, his pregnant wife Pattie Nicola Weeks and Neville’s retired ex-security guard uncle Harvey Richard Tate. Once all the guests have been introduced it is time for all the various comic / tragic personalities to be developed but, although the first act lasts 80 minutes, it is only Bernard and Harvey who achieve that goal before the interval.
Act Two is only half the length of its predecessor and, as a result, there is no time to try and make amends for the lack of character development, with the only real drama taking place after Bernard endures a verbal battering from Harvey as he rehearses his terrifically boring children’s puppet show The Three Little Pigs. Bernard’s decent into self-pity and his emotional verbal tirade back at Harvey is, undoubtedly, the dramatic highlight of the piece.
The final scene between Neville and Belinda is delivered so flatly that it takes the audience quite some time to realise that the play is finished and the curtain calls have begun, with the audience’s appreciation of the performances more polite than enthusiastic.