Season's Greetings, NT Lyttelton, London
King Lear, Donmar Warehouse, London
Matilda, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

An Ayckbourn farce revels in the season's stresses and strains

Will this Christmas be thoroughly merry? Not likely.

In the latest of Alan Ayckbourn's lesser comedies to vie for "forgotten gem" status, the Bunker family has gathered for Yuletide. That's four couples (middle-aged siblings and their partners) plus young children (kept offstage), Uncle Harvey (sprawled in front of the telly), and snow on its way.

A three-storey, middle-class home fills the Lyttelton stage in Marianne Elliott's new production of Season's Greetings. The outer walls are wadded with insulation, raggedly torn as if a bomb has detonated. Certainly, all isn't as cosy as it should be. Catherine Tate's Belinda may be busily draping tinsel on the tree, but her love life has become lacklustre, and her incommunicative husband Neville (Neil Stuke) routinely leaves the chores to her, and infuriatingly spends his time knocking back the booze with his old mate Eddie.

Havoc is being wrought in the kitchen by Belinda's neurotic sister-in-law, whose prissy husband (Mark Gatiss) is, meanwhile, annoying the boorish Harvey (David Troughton). This last is a potential psycho, with firearms up his sleeve. And on top of this, sexual sparks are flying between the frustrated Belinda and her sister's alluring new beau Clive (Oliver Chris).

The first half of the show is highly enjoyable, culminating in a hilariously frantic, and impressively athletic, fling between the tipsy Tate and Chris. Downstairs in the small hours, failing to be as quiet as mice, they ricochet around in a would-be carnal embrace, slamming into walls, rolling on noisy mechanical toys and waking the entire bug-eyed household.

Katherine Parkinson is wonderfully funny – with pathos too – lugging her soused deadweight of a husband up the stairs like a giant wobbling jelly. That said, the farce peaks before the interval, the upper floors of the three-storey set are redundant, and ultimately Season's Greetings feels like an under-developed, over-compressed variation on Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy, triumphantly revived two Christmases ago.

Ferociously inclement weather engulfs King Lear as the aged monarch – Derek Jacobi, with snow-white crew cut – staggers on to the storm-blasted heath. He is homeless now, his sanity ravaged by his cold-hearted daughters. This is the most electrifying scene in Michael Grandage's production at the Donmar.

The stage is plunged into near-darkness, with Jacobi reduced to a hunched shadow as lightning flares though cracks in the massive, rough-hewn rear wall. His bedraggled Fool (excellent Ron Cook) tries to call him back, but is drowned out by howling winds and thunder, startlingly intercut with still points of eerie silence, as if we're suddenly in the eye of the storm or inside Lear's head. Rather than fulminating, he whispers the speech "Blow wind ..." It's as if he believes he can cast spells, like Prospero in The Tempest, only here it's a demented regression to childish fantasies of power.

This play's theme of inverted child-parent relationships is subtly foregrounded, and Jacobi's baby-faced Lear, though regal in fur gown and coronet, is oddly infantile from the start. Holding his tummy, he sighs with satiated pleasure when Gina McKee's beady Goneril and Justine Mitchell's smiling Regan spoonfeed him with adoring speeches.

In other respects, though, this production disappoints, Jacobi somehow contriving to give a masterful performance without being deeply moving. Ian McKellen, for the RSC a few years ago, was both more heartbreaking and funnier. Indeed, the element of comedy – so intertwined in this tragedy – is almost entirely missing.

In Matilda, the girl-heroine has one quiet moment amid the mêlée where, by a strange coincidence, she sings softly of "sailing into the eye of the storm". The adorable, spindly child-actress Kerry Ingram (playing Matilda in rotation) is standing on a big pile of books and thinking. Her wizard brain allows her to escape the culture of boneheaded stupidity espoused by her unloving parents and monstrous, sport-obsessed headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. This new adaptation of Roald Dahl's book – scripted by Dennis Kelly, with songs by comedian-cum-composer Tim Minchin – is an exhilaratingly alternative family show.

Granted, the score isn't hugely original (Sondheimish here, Lloyd Webberish there), and the RSC may be preaching to the converted, but this is nonetheless extraordinary fare: a musical crusading against dumbing down. Matilda is an inspiring mini-intellectual who refuses to be crushed and gets her classmates on side – a student protest in miniature. Celebrating the ousting of Trunchbull, the final rocking number, "Revolting Children", is a jubilant riot: a classroom of small children leaping on their desks and punching the air, like the teen musical Spring Awakening but with tweenies. Choreographed by Peter Darling, Matthew Warchus's production manages to be at once boisterous, well-drilled and wittily satirical. Brilliant.

'Season's Greetings' (020-7452 3000) to 13 Mar; 'King Lear' (0844 871 7624) to 5 Feb and touring; 'Matilda' (0844 800 1110) to 30 Jan

Next Week:

Kate Bassett sees Tom Hollander in the vintage farce A Flea in Her Ear

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week