A play set at Christmas may seem ill timed now as the decorations have come down and presents are long forgotten. But luckily, the play in question is Middle Ground's beautiful adaptation of Wynyard Browne's The Holly and the Ivy, a timeless tale of painful memories etched out on a snowy Christmas Eve in 1947.
As the play begins, Jenny the vicar's daughter (played by Rachel Blenkiron) decorates the vicarage in preparation for the arrival of her family. Aunt Lydia (Eileen Page) and Aunt Bridget (Pat Mackie) are like two peas in a pod; except one is middle class and the other is working class and Irish. Adding to the mix is Mick (Nathan Hannan), the youngest son who is on leave from the army, Margaret the oldest daughter (Katarina Olson), Cousin Richard (James Wooley) and an unexpected guest, and what ensues is an explosive family Christmas in which closet doors are opened and skeletons are exposed.
Does Rev Martin Gregory (Tony Britton) really know his own relatives, each of whom has a secret? The proud Irish man realises that it is not only his parishioners that have changing needs and desires. Behind closed doors, his family members have each been harbouring their true selves.
This wonderfully rich piece is effortlessly performed and plotted. Michael Lunney directs at a leisurely pace and the play is the better for it. It takes time for Rev Gregory to realise that his family are trying to tell him they are unhappy, so the audience has to shoulder their pain, which builds up a real empathy for the characters.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Blenkiron's Jenny is selfless but hurting inside, contrasting beautifully with Hannan's playful Mick. As the aunts, Drummond and Mackie share an inner sense of loneliness.
Britton is marvellous and his best scenes involve the superb Olson as Margaret, who he presumes leads the perfect life. The moment where he gains some insight into this troubled soul's heartache is profoundly moving.
This is the best piece of work I've seen to date from Middle Ground. Like the fire which the family stare into, it's warm, slow burning and full of hidden truths.
- Glenn Meads (reviewed at The Lowry, Salford Quays)