There have been 10 Alan Ayckbourn plays in the National's South Bank home but none finer, or better presented, than this mordantly hilarious Christmas farce, a 30-year-old classic of drunken disasters and misrouted passions round the Christmas tree.
At home with the suburban Bunkers – no relation (or are they?) to Archie Bunker, the US equivalent of Warren Mitchell's Alf Garnett – is no place to be in the festive season. Except that it is all so depressingly familiar: simmering arguments, rumbling resentments and unwise lurches in the dark.
Our host, Neville Bunker (Neil Stuke) has wired up the tree to a light and sound system with catastrophic consequences, while his wife Belinda – in a performance of arch and nasally intoned comic brilliance by Catherine Tate – is developing the hots for her sister's unexpected guest, a hunky writer (Oliver Chris) with one book to his name that nobody has heard of, let alone read. Then there is Neville's dipsomaniac sister, Phyllis (Jenna Russell, best known in musicals, here blooming unexpectedly), making mayhem in the kitchen, and her husband Bernard, a failed doctor and amateur puppeteer played with superb edge and elegance by Mark Gatiss.
This sense of another generation claiming Ayckbourn as their own is reinforced by stand-up comic Marc Wootton as Neville's underling Eddie, who plays the best drunk scene since Design For Living at the Old Vic earlier this year, but on his own, lumpenly out for the count while his pregnant wife Pattie (Katherine Parkinson) lifts him around the set, causing only more damage.
And overall disapproval is summed up in David Troughton's bigoted bore of an uncle, Harvey, a security worker who has given all the kids guns as presents (so they get used to real life) and commits the great destructive swipe against Bernard's meticulously constructed puppet show rehearsal; then shoots an "intruder". Ayckbourn, so gloriously ingrained in so many English comic traditions, is here ridiculing ignorant Puritanism much like Ben Jonson, while Gatiss's tragic-comic sense of his own incompetence is suddenly like Uncle Vanya's. One doesn't want to labour these comparisons: Ayckbourn's savage, steely writing in this, one of his very best plays, is beyond compare. And when was an inanimate cuddly toy so riotously funny?
But for 30 minutes or so, you don't laugh at all. Director Marianne Elliott allows the gloom to envelop the comedy without being ironically post-modernist about it. The vast acres of the Lyttelton stage in Rae Smith's design put the whole house on display, even to the attic, so the discombobulated host can plausibly forget where his kitchen is. It confirms my belief that the best farces are often too close to tragedy to be funny.
The sight of the devastated Catherine Tate on a sudden, final blackout absolutely fulfils this prejudice. Nothing this Christmas will make you laugh harder, though, than the last few minutes of the first act, a majestically contrived climax that is then underpinned in a second act of brutal pay-off at the puppet rehearsal. This lot have 12 children between them. We see none of them. Whoever said Christmas was for kids? It's Armageddon for grown-ups.Reuse content