Alan Ayckbourn’s wonderfully accomplished Christmas tragicomedy is set in one of those ghastly Yuletide gatherings when celebration has turned to family ritual - although in this case the oldsters and the kids remain unseen.
Marital bliss has long turned to boredom - is that laughter or tears we hear? Booze, interminable meals and old television films pass the time, while the arrival of a dashing male guest provokes lust among all the womenfolk.
When first seen in 1980, this was probably the author’s most technically demanding play, given the clunky, often unreliable electronic gear of the period. But 30 years later, the technical accomplishments of the production now mainly lie with a fine cast who can turn mood and meaning midline, perfectly time their witty exchanges and negotiate Rae Smith’s hazard-filled setting of cutaway walls and floors on three levels - completing their extended knockabout falls with finesse.
The central figure is housewife hostess Belinda, played with warmth and allure by Catherine Tate, despite being surrounded by Neil Stuke’s terminally distracted husband, an over-helpful inebriate in the kitchen (Jena Russell), plus a desperate longing for sex with her sister’s new boyfriend. This leads to one of the most effective comedy scenes in the entire play as the two cleave together among the piles of presents under the Christmas tree. “We couldn’t wait,” she explains, when caught in flagrante.
The second act opens with Mark Gatiss as a failed medic and amateur puppet theatre enthusiast preparing to entertain the children with his Three Pigs playlet - a scene now less funny than when I first saw it in London many years ago. But Gatiss adds pathos to the moment when the enterprise fails and he turns on his keenest critic, a gun-obsessed security freak, played with horrific energy by David Troughton.
The play’s ending still has the power to shock, especially when, as here, the tragic closing scene is played straight, bullets fly and a man lies dead. But, of course, there are just one or two more surprises in store to round things off.