In the Republic of Happiness, Royal Court, London


The Royal Court has a proud tradition of offering alternative Yuletide fare and this year they have surpassed themselves with Dominic Cooke's razor-sharp production of a work that could be described as the ultimate antidote to mindless festive cheer.

Martin Crimp's play has a deceptively traditional opening. We seem to be in Alan Ayckbourn territory as a middle-class family bicker round the Christmas dinner table. But then it's as though Season's Greetings has been hi-jacked by a squad comprised of the absurdist Ionesco, that master of logorrhoeic misanthropy, Thomas Bernhard, and Caryl Churchill at her most radically playful. 

The violent shift from naturalism begins with the sudden unexpected appearance of Uncle Bob (Paul Ready) who has come to relay an epic message of hatred from his wife to the assembled guests. 

These include Peter Wight's porn-loving Grandad; his GP wife (Anna Calder-Marshall) who gets a kick out of thinking that two minutes of her one of her taxi-rides costs more than a bin man could earn in an hour; and wrangling granddaughters, one of whom is pregnant, possibly by Uncle Bob. 

The suspicion that Bob's pose of dutiful mouthpiece is a con and the mind-bending thoroughness of the denunciation induce a kind of blackly comic hysteria. The family cannot hear outside voices, it's claimed, through the loveless vacuum surrounding them and “their ready-made opinions switch on like the security-lights protecting their property and illuminate the same blank space”.

In a manner reminiscent of Crimp's earlier play Attempts on her Life, these unthinking cliches of the contemporary mentality are hilariously deconstructed in the middle section, subtitled “The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual” where the excellent cast, now spirited to a sort of television studios, babble modish mantras, such as “I write the script and I can handle it”, “I've moved on.  I'm looking good”.

The self-serving delusion that you can lead an apolitical life, the individualism that's just a type of paranoid narcissistic conformity; the culture of victimhood and therapy-speak – these things are skewered in an overlapping aural mosaic of escalating craziness (“My horrid abusive baby plus flashbacks of my abusive priest!”) and in the tartly funny songs (with music by Roald van Oosten) that imagine an almost post-human existence (“It's a new kind of world/And it doesn't come cheap/And you'll only survive/If you don't go deep”). Ending with a relationship now shadowed by dementia, this deep, provocative play refuses to heed that advice.

To 19 January; 0207 565 5000