This is a big moment in the National Theatre’s history: the establishment in the heart of its repertoire of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s farcical masterpieces in a well-timed, brilliantly perceptive and bleak mid-winter revival by Marianne Elliott.
Presents are untimely ripped open by the tree on Christmas Eve, and one of them, a drumming Teddy, goes completely bonkers. Catherine Tate’s raw and raunchy Belinda is more than bovvered – she’s bewitched and bewildered – as the married hostess falling in small hours lust with a small-time writer, in her own house: she and Oliver Chris are soon at it like rabbits all over the furniture.
Then there’s the puppet show being prepared by Mark Gatiss as the sad Chekhovian doctor married to Belinda’s sister-in-law: his rehearsal/preview is attended by the hyper-critical Uncle Harvey (a magnificently belligerent David Troughton) whose objections boil over into destruction.
These are two of the greatest scenes in twentieth century British comedy, but they only work as climactic flash points in a seasonal holiday nightmare because director Marianne Elliott has prepared the ground so well: there’s an air of dangerously misplaced jollity about this suburban alignment of parents – their children remain invisible – presents, and beige and blue cardigans.
As well as Tate and Gatiss, there are excellent, surprising performances from Jenna Russell as the tipsy sister-in-law, building a great exit laugh on the unlikely line, “I’m glad you’re not a train driver”; Neil Stuke as the boffin-like host; and Katherine Parkinson as the pregnant wife whose stomach keeps knocking over the puppet show scenery when she’s trying to help. Nicola Walter, too, is outstanding as the writer’s wannabe moll.
Best of all is this production’s rigorous avoidance of the sort of misplaced sit-com cosiness you often get in Ayckbourn plays. Without losing the heart of the piece, Elliott elevates it to a tragic, even mythic, level of serious unhappiness all round. The design by Rae Smith, lighting by Bruno Poet and music by Stephen Warbeck, all play their part in this stunning achievement. A great evening.