Everyone is stuck in the same house, a shallow writer is making hay with other men’s wives, a man is trying to put on his play, someone gets shot … what’s this, “The Seagull”? Almost. The recent Tony-winning revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy “The Norman Conquests” revealed it to be “Uncle Vanya” in suburbia. Marianne Elliott’s deliriously well-played new production of his “Season’s Greetings” echoes Chekhov’s earlier tragicomedy, but while there’s as much exquisite pain, there’s also many more belly laughs.
“Now we don’t want to start Christmas like this, do we?” So says Belinda (Catherine Tate in top form), halfway up a ladder, trimming the tree and attempting to calm the already testy atmosphere in her capacious suburban home, which is filled with fractious relatives for the three-day nightmare, sorry, holiday, that is a family Christmas.
Harvey (David Troughton) is ensconced in front of the TV torn between trying to watch his favorite film and baiting nerdy doctor Bernard (Mark Gatiss), who is preparing for his annual Christmas offering, which is to put on a puppet play, an event everyone else regards as less of a treat, more of a threat.
Bernard’s wife, Phyllis (Jenna Russell), meanwhile, is causing havoc in the kitchen while assorted feckless husbands Neville (Neil Stuke) and Eddie (Marc Wootton) are busily getting out of child care, much to the annoyance of pregnant Pattie (Katherine Parkinson) and, indeed, every other familial responsibility.
In classic fashion, stakes rise alarmingly with a stranger in their midst. Belinda’s permanently disappointed sister Rachel (Nicola Walker) has brought along novelist Clive (Oliver Chris), whom she met at her book club. His faux innocence and good looks wind up inducing suspicion, lust and mayhem in equal measure.
Elliott’s helming career is distinguished by the beautifully rendered emotional truth she has brought to texts as diverse as “St. Joan” and “War Horse.” What no one has previously seen is her gift for knockout physical comedy.
She lifts the audience into extended hysteria with a bravura physical staging of a couple desperately trying to find the least worst place to have illicit sex. And her orchestration of the scene where Pattie attempts to get her drunken sot of a husband out of a chair and up the stairs is a tour de farce.
Yet what gives the production its real force is Elliott’s superbly understated yet controlled grip on the sadness beneath.
It helps that she has an immaculate cast of comedy actors. Russell, in particular, is a riot as a drink-befuddled Phyllis, but even she can suddenly allow audiences to see the complexity of her relationship with Bernard, a man who drives everyone up the wall. And Ayckbourn is such a skilled dramatist that he can silence the auditorium with Bernard suddenly rising up out of his agony to say exactly what everyone has been dying for someone to say.
The show is running in rep until long after Christmas. The National could — and should — run this for as long as this gifted cast of TV and stage actors is willing to stay. Rarely has desperation been so enjoyable.