Season’s Greetings, Lyttelton Theatre, 8 December 2010
Season’s Greetings injects enough sorrow into the lives of its characters for its farcical component to be seen as just one of the play’s dramatic payloads. We should be able to laugh at these funny people and also feel sad for them as the mood turns.
However, this production’s decision to load the cast with a bevy of actors with mighty reputations for television comedy served to reduce the impact of this darkness. The result was a laugh-out-loud comedy with some slow, deep and meaningful bits that were underlined as Important and required us to wear Serious Faces when taking them in.
But rather like the unsmiling reports on poverty and disaster slotted between the gags on Comic Relief night, these solemn moments felt like pauses before more gags were due to be served up.
Having sketch-show Catherine, IT Crowd Katherine, that stand-up guy and the bloke from that sitcom, with Ruth Evershed from Spooks loitering around, did not exactly raise expectations of Chekhovian light and shade.
Catherine Tate seemed to be fighting the urge to slip into the personas of her sketch show characters. She accessed aspects of several of them, but these were obviously tempting, comfortable ruts that would have turned her performance into a series of caricatures rather than a coherent dramatic whole.
The central element of farce in the play was Belinda’s midnight tryst with writer Clive. Their mutual infatuation led them to attempt a quick coupling under the Christmas tree only to set off a loud musical toy and a remotely controlled music system bringing Belinda’s husband Neville, played by Neil Stuke, and the rest of the house guests downstairs to catch them in flagrante delicto.
The tryst was performed with consummate perfection by Catherine Tate and Oliver Chris, generating gales of delirious laughter at the absurdity of their attempted copulation. Their mutual attraction had been evident at their first meeting the day before, and the moment of its fulfilment had been heralded by some hilariously obvious flirting by Belinda.
But all the hints at the problems in Belinda and Neville’s marriage leading up to that moment, and its tragic aftermath for their relationship, in particular the air of coldness between them that ends the play, did not seem credible.
The farce was so singularly effective in its humour that the subsequent deflation of mood from the tragedy was quite unwelcome.
The only real shade in the production was produced by Nicola Walker as dowdy spinster Rachel and Katherine Parkinson as put-upon expectant mother Pattie. Theirs were performances that could be taken several shades darker than most of the other characters as they were not required to perform much in the way of comedy. As a result they stood out from the rest and could command real pity when their chips were down, which was most of the time.
Two characters were consistently amusing. Mark Gatiss’s Bernard and Jenna Russell’s Phyllis were performed with such attention to detail that they raised a smile of appreciation whenever they were on stage. Their characters shared a trait that saw them both soldiering on through adversity; Bernard deploying denial and Phyllis large amounts of drink to anaesthetise their pain, making them funny and likeable.
Marc Wooton’s Eddie and Neil Stuke’s Neville showed us that men, particularly those engaged in lower middle class jobs, can be quite tedious and dull. But the actors in the roles failed to make this tediousness genuinely amusing so that they were actually quite uninteresting to watch much of the time.
For a play that involves someone being shot and taken for dead, the moment the revolver was discharged did not feel like a murder scene. Harvey, played by David Troughton, the man with his finger on the trigger of the weapon that felled Clive, had up to that point been a one-note grump. So it came as no surprise that duff doctor Bernard’s pronouncement of the victim’s death turned out to be incorrect.
But it felt like a device, a way of introducing a massive full stop near the finish of the play in order to create An Ending to a story that because of its verisimilitude would trail off into Nothing In Particular.
I walked out at the end having laughed, giggled and gasped in horror, full of admiration for many of the performances, and with fond memories of some of Catherine Tate’s revealing outfits. But the cord that had been intended to pull on my heartstrings was tangled and ineffective.