Theatre Royal, Northampton – until 30 September 2017
A FAMILY SITCOM UPS ITS GAME… I didn’t much rate its premiere at the National in 2015, despite the achingly chic set I felt was “a kitchen-diner so huge and smart it makes David Cameron’s look poky”. Sam Holcroft’s blackish comedy about a dysfunctional family Christmas, culminating in a very fine food-fight, never quite took off for me: never felt credible despite a top cast. To the extent that I got grumbly about one or two overly obvious gags, like the hyperactive son’s-girlfriend Carrie breaking a precious ornament to a cry of “It was my father’s!”.
But here’s a thing. In this new English Touring Theatre version directed by Simon Godwin and set in a less futuristic, more cosily domestic scene and in a proscenium theatre, it comes to life and moves closer to Ayckbournian quality. Holcroft’s idea is that people work by a set of rules, colourfully projected overhead, as in some nightmarish devised card game (one takes place in the second act). Thus Matthew can’t lie unless he’s sitting down and eating, his girlfriend Carrie has to dance around when joking until someone laughs, and Edith must self-medicate and clean things to keep herself calm, and so forth.
Sometimes this feels unnecessary and even intrusive, but at other times gets excellent laughs in its own right. The background to the idea is about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which discusses the use and misuse of rules which may be unachievable: Adam’s daughter Emma is upstairs refusing to get up for family dinner and suffering from fatigue syndrome, and early on there is anguished conversation about the psychological element which may be part of it. Though the fact that her mother Nicole has banished her ineffective husband to the Travelodge might be not unconnected to, as might uncle Matthew’s mawkish emotional dependence on his sister-in-law…
And so forth. But this time (maybe there were tweaks to the script as well?) the play feels unforced and rather touching. Jane Booker is quite wonderful as Edith the compulsively-cleaning, make-it-all-lovely mother, her comic timing fabulous. There’s great work from Carlyss Peer as the hyper Carrie and Jolyon Coy as the infuriating Matthew who uses accents and impersonations to disguise his sense of being holly himself: both are very annoying characters who pull off the difficult trick of just managing not to alienate the actual audience. And Paul Shelley as the dreadful, monosyllabic, strokebound old wretch of a father does some high-quality scowling beneath his paper hat and – during the worst mayhem – sits eating a sprout on a fork with a magnificent satyr leer I cannot forget.
So it works. And the food fight is just as good as the one at the NT. Kev McCurdy as Fight Director , take a bow.
royalandderngate.co.uk until Sat 30 Sept but then TOURING – http://www.ett.org.uk