Marianne Elliott directs an all-star ensemble for the production, which centres around a calamitous family Christmas gathering. The cast of Catherine Tate, Neil Stuke, Mark Gatiss, Nicola Walker, Katherine Parkinson, Oliver Chris, David Troughton and Marc Wootton tackle the play, which is the 26th in Ayckbourn's canon.
I had the chance to talk to Nicola Walker about her new-found love of Ayckbourn's work, playing a "lonely woman of a certain age" and what it will feel like to be acting around the Christmas tree when the play ends its run in March.
Can you tell me a little bit about Season's Greetings?
Its a traditional British Christmas, its a Christmas full of rowing, fighting and attempted sexual congress. It is all set over Christmas eve, Christmas day, and that strange day after boxing day - that no-man's land of Christmas. It has everything that one would expect of a family and a group of extended friends being closeted in a house together for too long. The cracks begin to show, very soon on Christmas day, and the masks begin to slip.
You play Rachel Bunker, can you tell us about her?
I play Catherine Tate's sister and as quite often happens with sisters, they are very different. Belinda seemingly has a very happy family life with children, whilst Rachel is a very lonely lady of a certain age, who pretends that everything is fine. In a way, possibly it is for her. This is the first year that she has brought someone home to meet the family. She brings Clive with her, a writer, with whom she has formed a very deep bond.
What do you mean by a "very lonely lady of a certain age"?
Rachel has the immortal line "I have lived without sex for 38 years, and I haven't honestly missed it." She considers it to be a bit like smoking, "it would be foolish to take it up at my age." I adore her, I am completely in love with her. That's probably a good place to start if you are playing someone. I think she believes she has a very sexual nature, a very sexual side - she's just never had sex. That's something which is not portrayed on screen, stage or in art very often.
So how have you explored that? How has Ayckbourn dealt with that?
We did talk a lot about it, because that's the way that Marianne Elliott works, and I think we've drawn her rather sympathetically. For whatever reason, she is one of those women where it has just passed her by. I don't think she set out to be alone - not have anyone to love or anyone to love her - but there is a psychological fault in Rachel where you can just see where it hasn't happened. I do think she's fantastic. I'd take her out for a night, get drunk with her.
What is so special about Ayckbourn's writing?
Alan Ayckbourn boils things from everyday life down. Even at the first read through, it just comes off the page so easily and sounds so natural. You then go into the rehearsal room and have to put your script down, it's then you realise what fantastic structure is underneath all of his plays and all of his characters.
Every character has such a distinctive voice. That is Alan Ayckbourn's skill - that he makes it look so real and so easy. Underneath there is this ironwork , every character in this play already has such a well defined voice, even before you put the actors in there. I think that's where he's brilliant. He takes care of every individual on the page.
This is the first Ayckbourn I've ever done. I hadn't even read very much of it before. Now I have. He's an absolute genius and so prolific. I think we have to be careful, you can get used to having a playwright around in your country and we should really be paying a lot more attention to him. We should be very very proud of Alan Ayckbourn.
I would love to another Ayckbourn play, anywhere that anyone offered me! With his plays it's a bit like the swan analogy: the swan might be gliding on top, but beneath they're peddling like buggery underneath. The challenge is to make it look effortless. I'd love to do more.
What is it like working with such a well-known and talented cast?
The cast is fantastic, we've had the best rehearsal period. It's been very calm, very hard working, and I am having the best time. It is an absolute pleasure to be working so closely with Catherine Tate and to be standing on the same stage as her. She is incredibly funny. We have had a really useful rehearsal period. With some shows it's into the run that you discover things, but this has been really useful.
Can you tell us about working with Marianne Elliott?
Marianne has also had us doing, and I've never done this before, some art therapy. Each character had to create a piece of art which expressed something very private and true about our character's inner selves. They've been brilliant. My one - I started really sceptical, thinking of it as homework - was just covered in these highly erotic things. I brought it in and everyone thought it was really disturbing, it was actually really interesting.
The thing about Marianne is that she has that brilliant ability, that if you say "I don't understand" or "I don't know why I'm doing this," she can make it better, she can guide you out of any problems. It's just been great to work with her.
You have a performed in a number of National Theatre productions, do you have any highlights?
I think every time you work at the National you are aware of how lucky you are. I did Edmond here with Kenneth Branagh, that was one of my favourite jobs ever. It was hugely successful, because Ken Branagh was brilliant in it. My character was murdered in an appallingly bloody scene on stage and we had to choreograph this fantastically complicated fight to achieve that. I really enjoyed the technical side of that, the audience not knowing how we had achieved this murder in front of their eyes. The reaction every night, their shock. David Mamet came over to see us perform his play, which was brilliant. That was a highlight, as is Season's Greetings.
Do you think the piece will change as you move further away from Christmas?
I do, but in a really good way. I think what's going to happen is that it'll get darker, nastier, funnier. More claustrophobic. By March, Christmas should be over. It will kind of be like there is a family, in some sort of strange limbo world where it is Christmas for the entire year. I think you'll come and see it in February and think "look at them, stuck in a strange snow globe at the National."
If you're starting a production of this show I don't think the season matters, but it's great that we're doing it at Christmas. The story is just going to get bleaker as we move further away.
Season's Greetings opened in the NT Lyttelton on 8 December (previews from 1 December 2010) where it continues in rep until 13 March 2011.