There’s a festive food-fight in this production so cathartically exhilarating, you’ll feel like punching the air. Tables are thrown over, people fling turkey at each other and drinks go flying. It’s a chaotic free-for-all that cracks open the tension-filled brittle jollity of Christmas, drops dialogue and, as the final play to have been programmed by The National’s outgoing artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, feels like a giant letting off of steam.
It’s also the high point of director Marianne Elliott’s staging of Sam Holcroft’s new play, because it pursues her conceit to a brilliantly anarchic extreme, when elsewhere it gets bogged down by it. And what’s the conceit? That the traits of each member of a neurotically competitive middle-class family become rules for living flashed up on a scoreboard at either end of Chloe Lamford’s traverse set, marked like a pitch.
We’re granted literal ringside seats as desperate-to-impress actress, Carrie (Maggie Service), accompanies her fussy barrister boyfriend, Matthew (Miles Jupp), to his family home for Christmas. Already there is Matthew’s feckless brother, Adam (Stephen Mangan), his strung-out wife Sheena (Claudie Blakley) and Edith (Deborah Findlay), the house-proud matriarch.
Holcroft is great at laying out a comically familiar landscape of petty family rivalries, over everything from how to load the dishwasher to which peeler to use for the carrots. She captures the way we revert to a quasi-childlike state when thrust together at Christmas – the sideways comments and the smiles we force over mince-pies and to get us through the organised fun. The atmosphere on stage bristles with the strain.
Strip away the scoring and what you get is a fairly traditional domestic drama painted in comic strokes, complete with a hint of adultery, a sick child upstairs and a tyrannical father struck down by illness. What Holcroft does is to turn each character’s proximity to a stereotype on its head by rooting it in psychology – in the notion that we reinforce patterns of negative behaviour each time we fall back on them as coping strategies in stressful situations. Essentially, we exaggerate ourselves.
This isn’t nearly as dry as it sounds on stage, leading to scenes of well-executed and properly funny escalating farce as the things each character is obliged to do to ‘stay on top’ become ever more extreme. By the end, it’s become a frenzy of obsessive cleaning, only being able to lie while eating, silly voices and Sheena hunting down the red wine she needs to have the last word. And each of these flashes up on the scoreboard.
The cast handle all of this adeptly, with Mangan plastering his usual sardonic grin across Adam’s self-defensive sarcasm. It’s hardly a stretch from what he’s done in previous roles, but he does it well. Blakley, meanwhile, zips up Sheena so tight that it’s just joyous when she lets rip in the food fight. Findlay, however, is given short shrift by the script. Where the other characters playfully evolve, Edith feels stuck.
The play sometimes trips like this, in trying to walk the thin line between giving us comic characters and cardboard-cut-outs. The bigger problem, though, is a creeping earnestness. Holcroft isn’t simply content with spelling out the rules – after the food has been flung, she uses a long speech by Sheena and Adam’s daughter, Emma, laid low by anxiety, to hammer her point. It sucks the air out of the production and doesn’t say anything more than the savagely funny preceding scene.
Just a little too often, this show gets caught up in its underlying own seriousness. But when it works, the characters spotlit as their trait flashes up, the rules at play here liberate the stage space into a kind of brilliant, anarchic excess, which makes a statement without being weighed down by it.