Christmas, the season to be jolly, to celebrate with family and friends, the season of peace and goodwill… except in the Bunker household! Neville and Belinda Bunker host the family festivities for three days over Christmas, but this family gathering exposes thwarted ambitions, unhappy relationships and petty squabbles in Alan Ayckbourn’s dark farcical comedy.
This is an excellent example of a strong, cohesive ensemble production. Each member of the cast has their moment to shine and yet they do this without diminishing the group interaction, each bringing a very distinctive, credible character to the Christmas party.
Caroline Butcher (Belinda) and George Goulding (Neville) are very believable as the bickering hosts. Belinda’s insecurities as the taken-for-granted wife are very poignantly portrayed as she tries to reach out emotionally to her insensible husband, a gentler side to her more dominant role in the management of the house or flirty side as her sister’s guest catches her eye. The sibling rivalry between Belinda and Rachel (George Cotterill) is captured well, with Adam Barge relishing the role of their would-be love interest, Clive, and the relationship between Rachel and Clive is sensitively depicted. Goulding’s obliviousness to Belinda’s emotions while he’s tinkering with his mechanics or seeking refuge in the pub is also dexterously portrayed.
Tim Greathead brings authenticity from his military background to the role of bumptious Uncle Harvey, and his focus while ‘watching’ his films is of the highest level. Kevin Murdoch (Eddie) and Claire Jacobs (Pattie) have very good comic timing and interpretation of the unlikely married couple, again deftly managing copious amounts of props. Alistair Faulkner (Bernard) and Jill Cowling (Phyllis) are another couple demonstrating excellent comic ability: The Three Little Pigs will never seem quite the same again, nor the preparation of festive meals!
New director Anthony von Roretz, assisted by Jill Redston, has created a little gem of a production. Visually, the set design by Lizzie Paxton and quality of set dressing present an image straight out of House and Home; the attention to detail of the set dressing and props is exceptional, while the design and build creates the illusion of two rooms and an extensive two-tier hallway in an English suburban house. It is an impressive setting to walk into – and is the perfect backdrop for the strong performances that follow. It is not easy to act with such a large array of props, but all of the actors achieve this with apparent ease (very skilful!). The separate action happening in the different locations rarely distracts from each other, but allows the narrative to flow and create the illusion of a full and busy household, helped by the performances continuing before the lights come up so that there are no awkward pauses at the start of scenes. There are a couple of excellent tableaux effects that are very successful and great directional use of levels to always provide an interesting, aesthetically pleasing stage.
The amount of stage business is carefully directed down to the smallest detail, which shows great visual awareness by the directing team that is brilliantly executed by the actors in the performance space. The narrative runs along at a lovely brisk pace, ideal for comic farce (although there were, unfortunately, tonight a few sticky moments at the start of Act 2 with the prompt interjecting, made more obvious because the rest of the action and dialogue had run so slickly).
Special mention must go to the unnamed trio of ladies who so deftly change the props between scenes, accompanied by Cliff Richard’s annual Christmas songs; they work extremely well together as an efficient team to complete the scene changes so smoothly, particularly when resetting the dining room entirely from full dinner to breakfast in a style that would impress in any top range hotel! The lighting team should also be commended for the lovely atmospheric lighting and brilliant timing of effects.
This is a little Christmas cracker to enjoy – and may your family reunions over the festive season be more convivial than those of the Bunkers and their guests!