YORK actress Frances Marshall is starring in Alan Ayckbourn's first revival in 39 years of Season's Greetings at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

"I'm playing the hostess again!" she says, a reference to her previous Ayckbourn role in Joking Apart last summer.

Ayckbourn first staged Season's Greetings, his black if farcical comedy about four days in the life of a dysfunctional family, at the SJT’s former home at Westwood in 1980.

Now, in one of two Ayckbourn productions this season to mark his 80th birthday, Frances takes on the role of Belinda, who, with husband Neville, is hosting their extended family over a long Christmas weekend in their average English suburban house.

The presence of two tyrannical uncles – Bernard, whose ham-fisted annual puppet shows are a source of dread to young and old alike, and TV addict Harvey – promises to stir up trouble from the start as they arrive on Christmas Eve.

Then add broken toys, creaking marriages and guest novelist Clive, whose relationship with Belinda’s sister Rachel is going nowhere, causing him to look for love elsewhere.

"I'm quite nervous," said Frances in the early stages of rehearsals before Ayckbourn's revival opened last Thursday. "She's going to be a bit of a challenge!

"Last year, I felt had characteristics like Anthea in Joking Apart, cracking jokes but hopefully less obsessed, but with Belinda, the first thing that struck me was: I don't know why she does everything she does," she says.

"I didn't immediately like her. She's a woman who uses her femininity in a way I'm not aware I use mine, but I'm aware how it can be used, and I know I'd find her irritating at a party!

"I think I have more affinity with Rachel: that's who I'd gravitate towards at a party, even though she's a little stand-offish."

An audition guide to Rachel, by the way, describes her as "age 30-plus older, plainer sister of Belinda, a spinster and bookish".

"Belinda is further away from me, and I've been proudest of such roles, when I've done them. I think I've said it before, but for me it's always about going towards a character; if you bring them towards you, you lose something about them."

Frances enjoys each experience of being directed by Alan Ayckbourn, whether in A Brief History Of Women in 2017, Joking Apart in 2018, or Season's Greetings this summer. "Alan knows Belinda better than I do and that's a good start, but he always lets actors do their own thing, while also just nudging you in the right direction.

"For example, we had a talk about status and class and I'm now pitching Belinda a little than I was at first. That opens up possibilities and reasons for her behaviour that are useful for later in the play," says Frances.

"Alan just tweaks it a little and you end up with a clearer view. He knows the character, but he wants my version of Belinda and he makes that very clear!"

Now 35, Frances's first experience of performing an Ayckbourn play was in the SJT premiere of A Brief History Of Women, directed by the playwright himself. "I think it helped that I was working on a new play with Alan at the helm. I remember reading what I thought was a very serious scene about a frustrated, unhappy marriage, and I never wavered from that in any rehearsal, with Russell Dixon playing opposite me, and then the audience saw it and they were besides themselves with laughter," she recalls.

"At first I felt a bit annoyed, but then I realised that is the beauty of Ayckbourn's writing. The worse thing you can do as an actor is look for the laughs.

"Again I'm playing a frustrated woman now, and again I'm playing it for the truth, and hopefully the humour will come from that."

Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings runs in rep at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on various dates until September 28. Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com

Charles Hutchinson