What better way to celebrate Easter than to see a play about Christmas? Sam Holcroft is not the first comedy writer to mine the rich seam of family Yuletide celebrations, but few can have done so with such hilarious results. The family here is presided over by an authoritarian patriarch, a retired judge who is now stricken by illness and about to arrive on day release from hospital. All the play’s characters abide by rules – house rules, family rules, rules arising from personal characteristics – and they play a card game so overburdened with rules that the only possible outcome is anarchy. Holcroft shows us people who are ruining their own lives in trying to live up to the expectations of others. The older son Adam (Stephen Mangan) was a promising cricketer who is now a lawyer; the younger son Matthew (Miles Jupp) wanted to be an actor but is also a lawyer; and the granddaughter has confined herself to bed, fearful of doing anything in case she will be a disappointment. Marianne Elliot’s in-the-round production crackles throughout and towering over Chloe Bamford’s splendid kitchen/diner set are “scoreboards” displaying how the characters comply with the rules for their personal traits – for example, we are told that Matthew must sit and eat in order to tell a lie and, true to form, every time that he faces answering an awkward question, we see him scampering around for a seat and food. This ingenious device – the sort of thing that Alan Ayckbourn might have come up with in his heyday – applies to all the five main characters and is a source of repeated hilarity throughout the play. The production is also blessed with perfect casting. Mangan’s Adam is resigned to being a loser, spewing vitriolic sarcasm in self defence and Jupp’s Matthew brandishes an inane smirk whilst telling everyone what he thinks they want to hear, particularly when he is sitting and eating. Claudie Blakley elicits sympathy as Adam’s wife, an over-concerned modern mother with a taste for red wine and Maggie Service is a constant delight as Matthew’s girlfriend, a bit part actress who uses forced jollity to mask her brittleness and embarrasses everyone with her coarseness. Deborah Findlay also excels as the mother, in denial over all the family’s problems, conquering anxiety by “self-medicating” and relentlessly cleaning everything in sight. Of course, comparisons with Ayckbourn are inevitable, but Holcroft brings freshness and modernity to the genre of middle class family comedy. It is only in the last quarter that the play goes slightly off the rails, although this tends to be obscured at the time by laughter. All rules go out of the window in a food fight showdown which is choreographed brilliantly and timed meticulously; however, this descent into slapstick feels out of place with the subtler comedy which has preceded it and leads to a somewhat unsatisfactory ending. Holcroft should be telling us that families will, fate permitting, assemble again the following year to perform the same ritualised masquerade. For this particular family, we are left feeling that such a gathering will be highly unlikely.
Performance date: 31 March 2015