Sometimes a theater has to revive a play to see whether it is worth reviving. The proof is in the production. The National put one of its best directors, Marianne Elliott, and a cast of star comics, all known from television as well as the stage (Catherine Tate, Mark Gatiss, Katherine Parkinson, Nicola Walker) to the task of reviving Alan Ayckbourn's 1980 comedy, SEASONS GREETINGS. Alas, all that talent could not bring the corpse to life.
Ayckbourn was sort of the Neil Simon of Britain. He had a highly successful career in the commerical theater in the 1960 and 1970s writing comedies about British middle class folk, prosperous, but not contented. The plays were basically situation comedies with a touch of seriousness. Some of them (THE NORMAN CONQUEST, ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR) were hits on both sides of the Atlantic and very funny in their time. But, as Neil Simon's comedies are hard to revive now (even his best work, the fine BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS, flopped in a Broadway revival last year). Tastes in comedy change -- the history of theater proves that few comedies from the past stand the test of time.
There are half a dozen funny moments in SEASONS GREETINGS separated by setups that last far too long. You see the payoff coming long before it does. You can build a mystery on such prolonged foreplay, but not a comedy. Director Marianne Elliott made the mistake of taking the play more seriously than it deserves. I think she saw in it a play about frustrated women and inadequate men and tried to get her talented cast to play it realistically. Unfortunately the characters are thinner than cardboard and the attempts to lend them more depth only showed how thin they were. The cast deserves A for effort, but I wanted to scream "Faster, louder." It was all too tasteful. Ayckbourn wrote his plays for an intimate theater-in-the-round in Scarborough. The enormous three level set on the giant stage of the Lyttleton seemed to swallow the slight play up.
The really good performers were interesting to watch. The weaker ones were not, particularly Katherine Parkinson (from the hit tv series DOC MARTIN), a one note actress who always gets tiresome on stage. She was the very weak link in Mike Bartlett's COCK last winter and in this one as well.
The performance received polite applause from a New Years Eve audience. Not only of the National's finest hours. In this age of budget cuts, it's a shame to see so much money wasted on minor fluff.
SEASONS GREETINGS by Alan Ayckbourn. Royal National Theatre. December 31, 2010