We all know that poker plays have a “tell” but what about the rest of us? Do we have a little tic that gives us away? Or a strategy that we unconsciously deploy to protect us from confronting difficult truths? Sam Holcroft’s caustic new comedy mixes the dramatic staple of the ghastly Christmas lunch with the techniques of cognitive behavioural therapy to create a playful, painful and sometimes deliriously funny play.

The comedy is stilted in places but the playfulness of the construct and the superbly awkward performances carry it to a fabulously messy climax that takes the food fight to Olympic levels.

The scenario is familiar to anyone who has ever watched an Alan Ayckbourn play or, indeed, attended any awkward family gathering. Adam (Stephen Mangan) and Matthew (Miles Jupp), adult brothers, have returned to the fold for Christmas lunch with their mother Edith. Adam has an estranged wife (Claudie Blakley) in tow, Matthew a flashy new girlfriend, Carrie (Maggie Service), and there are two absentees whose respective ailments will play a crucial role. To begin with, the sniping is low-level with everyone on their best behaviour and Carrie snapping sinews in her efforts to impress. A rather obvious set-up. What gives the comedy an added cruel, and revealing, twist, however, is that the stage is laid out like a board game, complete with giant scoreboards that announce personal rules invisible to the players and so home in on the way they mask their insecurities. The placid, self-deceiving Matthew, for instance, must “sit down to tell a lie”; the passive-aggressive Edith must “clean to keep calm”. As the tensions rise, their rules become more complex and the characters’ tactics increasingly desperate. This leads to some priceless farcical moments, none more so than the excellent Deborah Findlay, as Edith, wielding a dishcloth with the wounding precision of a rapier. The drawback for the staging is that the action stops as the rules are spelt out: this feels unnecessarily laboured and slows things down. There are some pretty limp jokes too and a pre-lunch card-game is a twist too many, hammering home the points. But this is still an original, very entertaining and, ultimately, surprisingly moving conceit. The acting in Marianne Elliott’s tragicomic production is a joy and builds to an irresistible finale. After all, who hasn’t secretly longed to pour a jug of gravy over a fellow dinner guest?

nationaltheatre.org.uk

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