Sam Holcroft’s marvellous comedy looks at a family get-together as it gradually disintegrates. Over the course of a Christmas lunch revelations are revealed, old resentments are reignited and no one is left unscathed by the events – events for which they all share some of the blame. The play has been compared to Ayckbourn, and while it concentrates on the middle-class family in crisis it has a novel twist uniquely its own. Each character is given his or her own rule – projected above the stage – which they then have to follow. It might be as simple as having to sit down to tell a lie, or as baroque as having to keep on dancing like a winding-down automaton until you get a laugh.
Edith (Jane Booker) is the matriarch presiding over the festive celebrations with a military precision. She is variously helped and hindered by her two lawyer sons Adam (Ed Hughes) and Matthew (Jolyon Coy), Adam’s wife Nicole (Laura Rogers) and Matthew’s showbiz girlfriend Carrie (Carlyss Peer). The first act lays the groundwork for the second’s explosive confrontations, ending with the appearance of Edith’s husband Francis (Paul Shelley) who, to the surprise of everyone but Edith, is in a wheelchair and suffering from the effects of a stroke. Given this is the kind of family where the mother will try and deny the medically undeniable, it’s not surprising that there are plenty more secrets to be prised, cajoled and taunted out of the rest of the cast.
The performances are uniformly excellent and the evening is certainly a great example of ensemble playing. Booker excels as the domineering yet vulnerable mother. As her world comes crashing down about her she seems to believe that she can make everything right simply through her force of will. Hughes has real charisma as the blokeish man who has a penchant for breaking into accents and impersonations, whilst Coy is entirely sympathetic as a man trying to do the right thing but somehow just making things worse. Rogers and Peer are great as polar opposites, the former as serious and dignified as the latter frivolous and, occasionally, slightly idiotic.
Although one of the points of the play is that we all have self-imposed rules, I’m not sure if the rules displayed by the characters are supposed to be due to their own internal psychology or simply there because of the whims of the playwright. Though I’m not sure it entirely matters as this is a very funny and supremely entertaining evening.
Continues at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday 21.
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