Playwright Alan Ayckbourn remembers a piece of writing advice offered by his mentor, the director and pioneer of theatre-in-the-round Stephen Joseph (1921-67): “You must have a central character A who wants B, and if he gets it, it’s a comedy and if he doesn’t it’s a tragedy.” Part of Ayckbourn’s genius is to add his own twist to any such theatre generalisations. In this 1980 comedy (which he here also directs), he presents the audience not with one central character, but with nine.
An extended family is gathered to endure entrenched Christmas rituals (although, as Ayckbourn says in the programme, it’s not actually a Christmas show, more an excuse to gather incompatible people). Uncle Bernard’s annual puppet show last year featured all of Ali Baba’s 40 thieves; news of this year’s Three Little Pigs is greeted anxiously: “Just the three?”
In the hallway, Belinda is putting the finishing touches to the Christmas tree. Off stage, her sister-in-law, Phyllis, is sustaining various injuries as she prepares her annually disastrous Christmas Eve lamb. In the sitting room, retired security guard Uncle Harvey is caught up in the conflicts of the Christmas action film. Off stage, Pattie is trying to put fractious children to bed. In the dining room, husbands Neville and Eddie talk shop and avoid domestic duties. Belinda’s sister, thirtysomething singleton Rachel, has invited her potential love interest – novelist Clive, the stranger whose presence troubles the familiar familial undercurrents.
All nine characters have wants that remain unfulfilled, yet the action escalates into laugh-aloud ridiculousness. The beauty of Ayckbourn’s writing (skilfully realised by his excellent ensemble) is to expose glimpses of the tragic elements of their individual peculiarities, seasoning comedy with compassion.
• Season’s Greetings is at Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, until 28 September