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Review Round-up: Glowing Greetings for Festive NT

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Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 Christmas comedy Season's Greetings opened in the NT Lyttelton last night (8 December, previews from 1 December 2010) where it continues in rep until 13 March 2011.

Catherine Tate, Neil Stuke and Mark Gatiss lead an all-star ensemble in Marianne Elliott’s new production which centres around a calamitous family Christmas gathering. Also in the cast are Katherine Parkinson, Oliver Chris, David Troughton, Nicola Walker and Marc Wootton.

The prolific Ayckbourn has written over 70 plays, with Season's Greetings the 26th. This National Theatre revival appears to have the critics asking how many other forgotten "gems" there are in his canon.

Michael Coveney

"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 ... Catherine Tate’s raw and raunchy Belinda is more than bovvered – she’s bewitched and bewildered ... 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 are excellent, surprising performances from Jenna Russell ... Neil Stuke as the boffin-like host; and Katherine Parkinson as the pregnant wife ... Nicola Walter, too, is outstanding as the writer’s wannabe moll ... Without losing the heart of the piece, Elliott elevates it to a tragic, even mythic, level of serious unhappiness all round ... A great evening."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Alan Ayckbourn, has an ear for failure, for suburbia’s silent grievings ... This cracker of a production catches understated, 20th century English regret with all the conversational affection of a Mike Leigh film ... Sir Alan loves giving us blokes with names such as Neville and Clive ... They are often married, though unhappily ... Into this familiar world of the family Christmas steps a handsome stranger (Oliver Chris). He throws the women into a tizzy ... The acting is top class. David Troughton’s Uncle Harvey has the gait and neck tweaks of a former chief petty officer. Mark Gatiss nearly steals the show as oddball Bernard. Catherine Tate is on duty to glam it up as sex-starved Belinda. Neil Stuke, plaving Nev’, could almost be David Jason. Maybe things sag a little in the middle of the first half but there isn’t a duff performance in the show. Frustrated love, dead-end careers, shrivelled intellectualism, the reassurance of the humdrum ... This show will give you many Christmas laughs but will also make you look afresh at the outer suburbs and ponder the darkness amid the twinkling lights."

Michael Billington

"Although Marianne Elliott's production has its moments, it never quite achieves the painful delirium of classic Ayckbourn revivals ... Cavils aside, Ayckbourn gives a woundingly funny portrait of the way at Christmas hopes can be crushed ... Mark Gatiss gives a performance of subtlety and compassion as the irritating yet good-hearted Bernard: even the way Gatiss plunges his hands in his cardigan suggests a man who craves order yet ends with his head in his hands. David Troughton is equally fine as the mad former security guard, Harvey, who hides six-inch knives in his trousers and embodies a kind of domestic fascism ... Catherine Tate is very funny indeed as the nagging Belinda ... Katherine Parkinson, yet another disappointed wife, memorably pummels her drunken husband ... Nicola Walker as Rachel completes a trinity of dejected women by wanly recognising she can't compete with her sister's appetite. All this makes a worthwhile evening. But, compared with Ayckbourn's revival of Taking Steps at the Orange Tree, the production seem as if a fine comedy has been pumped up to occupy the Lyttelton's cubic capacity."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Mark Gatiss, as Uncle Bernard ... is only one of a set of stellar performances in this perfect Ayckbourn revival ... Oliver Chris as the tall, handsome, horrified Clive — is plunged into a family circle which had got used to its own hellishness ... The clockwork perfection of the plotting is served by a cast and director following the first law of true comedy: take your character seriously ... At his best, Ayckbourn (like Bruce Norris with Clybourne Park) makes you wonder why any playwright, dealing with any topic short of tragedy or extreme politics, ever chooses any medium BUT comedy ... Catherine Tate... brilliantly and economically depicts the hostess Belinda... she and Neil Stuke could give a masterclass in aggressive use of the word “darling” ... Nicola Walker’s awkward sexless thwarted Rachel moves between mockable hysteria, heroic resignation and the funniest speech about sex ever perpetrated on the British stage ... the mainly drunken, shrieking Phyllis (Jenna Russell) steps lovingly towards Bernard in his defeat. Those moments — often fleeting, set between gales of laughter and moments of extreme slapstick — raise us beyond comedy to where we should be — only to hurl us happily back."

Fiona Mountford
Evening Standard

"Alan Ayckbourn, that master examiner of middle-class mores and misery, makes a welcome return to the National ... A top-notch ensemble cast, including Catherine Tate and The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, illustrates what a serious business Ayckbourn’s humour is now considered to be ... There’s a satisfying sense of preparation for an imminent big event and one of the many fine features of Marianne Elliott’s beautifully calibrated production is the feeling that life is carrying on in all corners of this large house at all times ... Ayckbourn mercilessly skewers those familiar seasonal flashpoints ... This might be set at Christmas, but Ayckbourn’s razor-sharp dissection of flatlining marriages and quiet despair in the midst of affluence is relevant all year round ... The chaotic dress rehearsal of the long-threatened puppet show from Bernard (Gatiss) is as squirm-makingly awful as everyone, not least David Troughton’s delectably bellicose Uncle Harvey, has led us to believe. Yet quieter moments hit home with just as much force, not least when Nicola Walker’s unhappily single Rachel is heartlessly rejected by the man she loves ... The pristine aspect of Christmas Eve has turned to devastation by December 27th, as the unhappy house-party starts to break up, broken presents discarded on the floor."


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