With Alan Ayckbourn, you are on familiar territory. And you know what familiarity means, particularly where families are concerned - nit picking and pecking order.
Christmas chez Belinda and Neville’s, and Samantha Giles is stunning as the dictatorial matriarch, with Philip Bretherton as a hilarious escape artist, from family or the truth, to work and hobbies. The other odd couples include Phyllis and Bernard, the long-suffering, heavily pregnant Pattie Josie Walker and brooding Eddie Stephen Hogan, and Rachel Penny Layden, so tomboyish she could pass for Angela’s daughter rather than her sister, is linked, tenuously, with famous author, Clive Stuart Laing. Both latter characters are Ayckbourn stalwarts, the inscrutable woman and the outsider as hapless catalyst. Then there’s curmudgeonly Harvey Colin Prockter, whose sinister fondness for violence makes him a loose cannon.
The Playhouse does the honors with a delightfully suburban 80s interior, designed by Peter McKintosh. Costume has not quite moved on from the 70s, so glamour puss Belinda swans around in a rather awful negligée, emphasizing the fact that love is blind. None of the characters are especially likeable, but they are sympathetic, true to life, in recognisably frustrating situations.
The most devoted couple appears the most tragic: peevish Bernard is obsessed with his puppets, a sadly convincing performance from Ian Bartholomew, while Angela Clerkin is a show stopper as lushly ditzy Phyllis. Clive gets plenty of material for another opus, and Ayckbourn wryly makes fun, putting him in a household of people full of apologies for not reading his book, and full of ideas for his next one.
The play appeals to a sense of Schadenfreude as much as a sense of humour. However, it’s less delight in others’ woes than the relief that it’s never happened to you, or that you are not alone with your problems. Married people will appreciate the fact that although they have been there and done that, at least nobody bought them the T-shirt as a present. And the sad bits are perfectly balanced by masterly, farcical set pieces, creating something wonderfully dark and rich – something to be relished.