Season’s Greetings by Alan Ayckbourn The Oxford Theatre Guild The Old Fire Station 1st – 5th December Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings takes place over the three days of Christmas in the home of Neville and Belinda Bunker. The play was written and is firmly set in the 1980s and although the action takes place at Christmas, the festival has little to do with the storyline; it is simply an excuse for family relationships to be examined when living in close proximity for a short period of time.

An ideal and popular offering for this time of year, the Oxford Theatre Guild’s production at the Old Fire Station from 1st - 5th December didn’t disappoint. Well cast, seasoned OTG actors played all the characters and the set is open, simple and effective. Perhaps a little too open as Ayckbourn plays tend to benefit from a cosier tighter stage when the farcical elements of the action can be better appreciated. The idea to use a dining area off the main arena and totally out of vision except for the tops of the cast’s heads seemed strange to me when there was so much room on stage.

The plot is that there really is no plot; Season’s Greetings is a series of vignettes linked together with the underlying theme of a group of people and their reaction to certain situations thrust their way.

As the play opens, hostess Belinda is decorating the Christmas tree. Played by Jo Lainchbury, Belinda held the production together well and set the pace throughout. Her stale marriage to Neville, who seemed to be more interested in repairing high-tech gadgets, was the basis for cracking dialogue between the two during the whole production. Neville was played by Richard Readshaw who really looked and sounded the part, set in his ways and happy with his lot not realising Belinda was not the contented housewife he thought.

Also sat firmly in the opening scene was the retired security nut Harvey who not only carried a knife in his sock but his handgun was never far away. He was engrossed in some epic film on the television giving us the benefit of the action every few minutes. Chris Harris played Harvey and came over successfully as the action man you would want round you in a crisis. Rob Hall was first rate as the laid back Eddie who kept calm throughout. Married to the pregnant Pattie, expertly portrayed by Tara Lacey, Eddie carries on as he did as a singleton, doing his own thing and going down the pub on any excuse. This much to the chagrin of the lovely Pattie who seems to be bringing up her family alone.

Preparing the evening meal in the kitchen out of sight was Phyllis. Phyllis is one of those folk who are forever being put upon. By Belinda to do the cooking and by her hapless husband who has prepared, as per, his Boxing Day afternoon epic puppet show to the horror of the adults and probably the children too.

Now all the family are gathered in. Belinda’s sister, the dipso Rachel, has gone to fetch her chum, the author Clive, from the station but he arrives whilst she is away having caught an earlier train.

There is a touching scene where Rachel is left alone with Clive for the first time and relates to him her philosophy of life. No sex for a start. Clive doesn’t seem bothered at all probably because he already has his eyes on Belinda.

Meriel Patrick was Rachel and although she gave a professional performance as the frustrated permanent spinster she lacked a little of the warmth needed in the short nearly intimate moment she enjoyed with Clive. Indeed Clive (James Silk) could have performed a few more facial expressions to decorate his otherwise excellent characterisation.

Moya Hughes as Phyllis was a believable character, thwarted at regular intervals by her lacklustre failed doctor husband Bernard, superbly played by Nick Quartley. The scene where he pronounces someone dead and they instantly move is just hilarious.

So Christmas progresses for the Bunker family et al. Unfortunately the programme gave no clue to the passage of time or the number of Acts and Scenes, strange for such a professional group.

Ayckbourn wrings every human emotion from this play, from pure farce to tragedy and OTG do the work absolute justice. The scene on Christmas night when Belinda is obviously waiting for Phyllis to leave Clive alone and go to bed is played to a tee. No sooner has Phyllis climbed the wooden hill, Belinda is there displaying her wares and offering up the bait which is quickly taken up by the keen Clive and a roll round the set is in order. Unfortunately for them both the family appear on the landing due to the noise and the shenanigans cease forthwith. The scene is very well played with passion and spontaneity The day of the great Puppet Show dawns and Bernard rehearses in front of Harvey as all the rest of the family have made their excuses. Bernard enlists Pattie as his helper and what follows is pure theatre. Just the right share of frustration, comedy, and deflated ego. It could be re-written as a play in its own right. Excellent.

As with a good deal of Ayckbourn’s comedies, they start light and breezy then descend into darkness, as with this play. The final scene where Clive is mistaken for burglar is dramatic and though tinged with a hint of farce underlies a blacker side to the piece, totally unexpected for the Season’s Greetings first timers in the audience.

Director Simon Tavener is to be congratulated on the production, a fine piece of work and a very enjoyable night out.

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