In the Republic of Happiness, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, London

Seasonal jingles on a loop; too much pastry; enforced conviviality with grumpy relatives – Christmas offers rich pickings to dramatists with an eye for black comedy. Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings is a standard-bearer in this department and, in a sense, Martin Crimp’s bleak new play starts in the same department: it opens with a ghastly Christmas lunch in which a family munches their way grimly through turkey with all the trimmings. Grandfather, drifting into senility, makes outrageous statements; two teenage daughters snipe viciously at one another; mother, with a bottle of wine parked strategically close to her glass, tries to keep some sort of peace.

It looks like a particularly merciless piece of social satire. Until, that is, Uncle Bob arrives, unannounced, to deliver cruel judgment on everyone in the room. Just as Bob lobs a grenade into the uneasy social gathering, so Crimp blows up dramatic expectations, suddenly shifting from naturalism into a much more experimental style, the better to tackle his bigger theme of contemporary obsessions with individualism. In the second section, the actors abandon character to perch on a row of seats, as if on a television talk show, and voice a free-flowing, modern litany of aspirations, rights and demands.

It is a spiky, difficult and sometimes crude play: it has already infuriated some theatre-goers and prompted walk-outs. But I found this middle-section uncomfortably brilliant, as the cast work through “The Five Essential Freedoms of the Individual” in search of elusive personal happiness and security, breezily making assertions such as “I write the script of my life” and “I’m looking good”. It’s an angry, provocative, political piece that matches form to content: as the chorus of single voices repeat similar mantras, Crimp makes his point that the more people strive for individual self-affirmation, the more they conform to a norm.

Dominic Cooke’s strong cast handle this skilfully and wittily, bringing individual quirks to their common refrains. The play fizzles out in its third passage, in which Bob and his partner return, having attained some sort of brittle faux-paradise, the Republic of Happiness (the section is prefaced in the text with a line from Dante’s Divine Comedy). This scene hammers home Crimp’s message and it plays awkwardly. And the play suffers from the fact that there’s an unattractive smugness to attacking smugness. But at its best, it rips the wrapping off contemporary, smart-screen society and asks what exactly is underneath.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.