There's a one-act play by Thornton Wilder called The Long Christmas Dinner which is rarely seen in this country but was eloquently revived a couple of years ago by the Savio(u)r Theatre Company. With the effect of time-lapse photography, four generations of the Bayard family take their turn at the festive (and not-so-festive) board in a continuous, speeded-up succession that compresses nine decades into thirty minutes of stage time.
It's been an influential piece. Orson Welles acknowledged his debt to it for a famous montage depiction of a disintegrating marriage in Citizen Kane.
And now it has provided the structural model for The Big Meal, Dan LeFranc's sharply observed, witty and deeply touching play which takes us on 90-minute roller-coaster ride through eighty years in the life of one ordinary American family as epitomised by their recurrent gatherings in the same restaurant.
Former RSC chief, Michael Boyd directs this European premiere – a co-production of the Theatre Royal Bath and the High Tide Festival – in a brilliantly paced staging that shows a remarkable feel for the elastic manner (both comic and haunting) in which LeFranc plays around with our sense of time.
We've hardly drawn breath before the central couple, Sam and Nicole (James Corrigan and Lindsey Campbell) have met, defensively declared themselves averse to commitment, celebrated the anniversary of their first physical intimacy, parted and got back together again, with Jo-Stone Fewings and Kirsty Bushell now portraying them in their prime.
The irony with which life subverts our confident predictions is heightened by presenting these major shifts as a swift, seamless sequence, the switches denoted only by a quiet ping on the piano.
One moment the couple are child-phobic, the next two little brats (superbly played by Zoe Dolly Castle and Jeremy Becker at the performance I saw) have sprung on them in a public place like clinging demons and for a split-second you believe that the adult pair's gob-smacked question “Has anyone lost a child?” is genuine rather than a joke in a well-established family game.
Wilder's play unfolds against a background of specific historical change (the oldest character can remember Indians in the neighbourhood). By contrast, LeFranc aims for a timeless – perhaps over-generic – quality, underscored here by Tom Piper's striking, slightly abstract red-and-blue set. But as the superb company (in which Diana Quick and Keith Bartlett portray the couple in old age) morphs through several roles and across generations and conveys, with uncanny precision, the rowdy, contentious dynamics of family life, the play finds a potent theatrical metaphor for its genetic cycles and repeated patterns.
Death recurrently comes as a Last Supper, served with an unfeeling bang, and consumed by each condemned person in turn during agonised and agonising suspensions of the normal flow. But the cumulative mood is not, oddly, pessimistic.
Both the play and the production bring home, piercingly, how the blink-and-it's-gone nature of life should encourage us to value its preciousness while it lasts. In that respect, The Big Meal is a fortifying, as well as a piquant, repast.
To April 5; 01225 448844 – then at Hightide Festival, April 10-19; www.hightide.org.uk