Your aim is to start the New Year without the usual hangover of regret, shame, and weakness of will and armed with a more lucid and limber approach to your love life. One solution might be to have yourself cryogenically suspended between Boxing Day and 2 January. It would be a less risky strategy than that adopted by Jessica Hynes' nervy, depressive Kate, a loser who is behindhand on the full-length book and the biological clock fronts and who forms the suffering centre of this entertaining, if faintly hollow tragicomedy by Michael Wynne. For an away-from-it-all alternative celebration of the incoming year, she has hired a Gothic pile and invited a bunch of chums. The pile is even called The Priory, the very name which conjures a rich person's media-genic clinic.
Jeremy Herrin's superlative cast squeezes every ounce of hilarity and pain from the stressed-out thirty-somethings. Rachael Stirling is magnificently monstrous as Rebecca, the kind of privileged, professionally frustrated mother who bullies others via her guilty, born-again obsession with her little children. Her lofty inattention to the feelings of her so-called friends is counter-balanced by the tactless curiosity of Charlotte Riley's Laura, a jumped-up Essex girl who turns out to have layers of hurt under the squawky social ecstasy. Her treatment of Daniel – a delicious study by the ever-excellent Joseph Millson of a kindly, rather anal gay man – is a painfully funny mix of presumptuous intimacy and anthropological cluelessness.
As the weekend collapses into dressing-up games and dressings-down, interspersed with power cuts, suicide attempts, and visits from cyber-chums in search of sex, several other analogue scenarios are referenced – from the eerily secluded country house of Agatha Christie spoofs to a reunion movie like The Big Chill. But it's not just that Jessica Hynes is playing the same stoical punchbag role here for which she won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic recently in The Norman Conquests, that makes you feel that Michael Wynne's default mode in this play is rather mechanically Ayckbourn-ian. Being younger, he knows where the bodies are buried on the contemporary cultural and sexual battlefield, but the way he goes about unearthing them has an old-fashioned feel to it. And I found a fair amount of it hard to believe.
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