There have been 10 Alan Ayckbourn plays on the South Bank, but none finer than this mordantly hilarious Christmas farce, a 30-year-old classic of drunken disasters and misrouted passions round the tree.
At home with the Bunkers is no place to be in the festive season. Our host, Neville Bunker (Neil Stuke) has wired up the tree to a light and sound system, with catastrophic consequences. His wife Belinda (Catherine Tate) is developing the hots for an unexpected guest, the hunky writer Clive (Oliver Chris). Then there is Neville's dipsomaniac sister, Phyllis (Jenna Russell), making mayhem in the kitchen, and her husband Bernard, a failed doctor and amateur puppeteer played with superb edge by Mark Gatiss.
A sense of a generation claiming Ayckbourn as its own is reinforced by the stand-up Marc Wootton as Neville's underling, Eddie. He plays a fine drunk scene, out for the count while his pregnant wife Pattie (Katherine Parkinson) lifts him around the set. Overall disapproval is summed up in David Troughton's bigoted bore of an uncle, Harvey.
Ayckbourn is here ridiculing ignorant Puritanism much like Ben Jonson, but one does not want to labour comparisons. Ayckbourn's savage, steely writing is beyond compare.
For an hour or so, you don't laugh at all. Director Marianne Elliott has allowed the gloom to envelop the comedy without being post-modernist about it. Nothing this Christmas will make you laugh harder, though, than the final few minutes of the first act, a majestically contrived climax that is then underpinned in a second act of brutal pay-off. This lot have 12 children between them. We see none. Who said Christmas was for kids? It is Armageddon for grown-ups.
In rep to 13 March (020 7452 3000)