Review: Season’s Greetings, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in rep until September 28. Box office: 01723 370541 or at

THE first Christmas pudding of 2019 looms large and explosive as a time bomb on the poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s first Scarborough revival of Season’s Greetings since its 1980 premiere at the old Westwood site.

Yes, this deeply dark comedy and frank farce is set over four days as a dysfunctional family gathers on Christmas Eve, but the tinsel and tree could just as easily be the bunting for any celebrations where relatives are forced by habit to share time together in an atmosphere as claustrophobic as a sardine can.

Unlike the guests, the play is perfectly at home in the Round, where Kevin Jenkins’ set builds a landing out over the seating as an extra entrance and exit that provides a route to much laughter for the shenanigans, fall-outs and flare-ups in the household of Neville and Belinda Bunker.

The play opens on Christmas Eve 1979 with a familiar sight, Bill Champion, one of Ayckbourn’s most trusted lieutenants on stage, here playing wicked Uncle Harvey. Hair cropped, clothing militaristic, laugh unnerving, he is watching a film seen many times before and savouring its protagonists’ misfortunes once more.

Twenty-seven years a security guard, he won’t be lifting a finger to help; he will be making all around him feel insecure, passing on unwelcome advice, giving children guns for Christmas. A typically brilliant Ayckbourn comic creation receives a typically brilliant performance from the aptly named Champion.

Host Neville (Matt Addis) never finishes any task set by wife Belinda (York actress Frances Marshall), neglecting to nurture their relationship in favour of fiddling around with gadgets, or offering a new job to feckless loser Eddie (Michel Lyle), who pays no attention to wife Pattie (Mercy Ojelade), heavily pregnant with their fourth child, whom she senses he does not want.

Neville’s tiddled sister, Phyllis (Eileen Battye), fails to mask her need for a drink behind always making Christmas Eve dinner. Husband Bernard (Leigh Symonds) is a failure, a kindly, decent man, yes, but a failure, whether as a doctor or puppeteer whose boring Boxing Day shows for the children always lack punch, punchlines and pace.

Symonds has been terrific in his SJT roles, and this is his best yet, whether in the hopeless turmoil of his show rehearsal, his controlled reaction to Harvey’s spite, or his general pathos.

Belinda’s stand-offish, awkward, unfulfilled, eternally disappointed older sister Rachel (Rachel Caffrey) has invited a man for Christmas, with no expectation he will show up. Clive (Andy Cryer) is a writer with one largely unread book to his name, and when he does arrive, he sets off a series of storylines with no guarantee of a happy ending. Belinda, desperate to stir up a sterile marriage, with too much juice in the tank still needing an outlet, makes a beeline for him, and she is not alone (his character finding an echo in Guy Jones in Ayckbourn’s 1984 play A Chorus Of Disapproval).

Ayckbourn once described Season’s Greetings as depicting “an average family Christmas”. Far from happy, bleak as midwinter, full of selfish behaviour, wilful acts and goodwill to no-one, and peopled with frustrating men and frustrated women, it is of course hugely humorous, all the more so for Ayckbourn’s direction and wonderful cast.

Roll on Ayckbourn play number 83 from September 5, his 80th birthday party piece, Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present.

Charles Hutchinson