Review: Season’s Greetings, Buxton Drama League

11698798_911284848931767_5354895632448453118_oSeason’s Greetings by Alan Ayckbourn, Buxton Drama League, Pavilion Arts Centre, Buxton 26-28 November

Alan Ayckbourn has written a play a year for over 50 years. His farces guarantee enough laughs to make him the most popular and successful English playwright of that period. His subject matter is unwavering; the pointless, self-centred and useless lives of the educated English middle-classes. Fearful, anxious and inward-looking these are people who have no excuse for not making more of their opportunities. I’ve only seen a dozen or so of Ayckbourn’s 70-something plays but have come to the conclusion that he really dislikes these people.

Season’s Greetings is populated by – for the most part – hopeless people, doomed to fail in their personal and professional lives. People who can neither care for themselves nor others – but how we laugh at them! Set in a large house between Christmas Eve and the morning after Boxing Day we are in the company of four couples whose relationships are less than nurturing and a cantankerous single uncle.

Nothing goes well – but then no one expects otherwise. Rachel (Jayne Marling) has hopes that the new man in her life, emerging novelist Clive (Dan Large) will find something in her that others have failed to. The predatory Belinda (Maria Carnegie) lost in a loveless marriage immediately makes a play for the younger man. Her husband Neville (Tim Warburton) is less competent than he would like to believe as he invents and tampers with electrical gadgets. Eddie (Peter Stubbington) trails alongside Neville believing that he will offer him a job managing a new shop. Meanwhile his heavily pregnant wife (Emma Craufurd-Stuart) is abandoned to attend to the children (who are always off-stage). The other couple – Bernard, a useless doctor (Paul Harrison) and Phyllis, his alcoholic wife (Karen Nicholas) – bring disasters of their own. He with home-made entertainment, she with her accidents in the kitchen. Hovering over all of this is the nasty presence of Harvey (Barrie Goodwin) who carries a knife and a gun lest intruders turn up – and given the way the country is going they surely will.

This cast – directed by Robbie Carnegie – has worked together on a number of Drama League productions over recent years. There is a confidence and trust amongst the ensemble. They evidently enjoy working together and know that they can rely on one another. The play is well-cast – each character is clearly understood and delineated – and the complexities of the action are well-managed.

One of the set-pieces of the play (in the context ‘highlight’ is probably not the right word) is Bernard’s annual puppet show – this year “The Three Pigs”. For this production Ali Quas-Cohen and Funny Wonders helped the cast make the wonderful puppets destined for their own tragic play-within-a-play. Ayckbourn’s plays demand precision and certainty in timing and the cast gets everything right, as do Guy Dunk and Philip Nadin who manage the sound and light excellently.

For those that fear Christmas, Season’s Greetings may offer some comfort. In terms of pleasure, good company and emotional happiness it sets the bar spectacularly low. Buxton Drama League is on a good run at the moment, delivering consistently good and engaging productions. One can only look forward to One Man, Two Guvnors which will be performed at Buxton Opera House between 19-21 May, 2016.

Keith Savage