“Middle Ground Theatre Company”. The programme claims it’s a geographical description, but that there is a gift to a reviewer. Not since George Bernard Shaw disbanded the short-lived “Beardy Know-It-All Plays For Your Own Good Society” and John Osborne closed up the accounts of “Shouting At You Til You Give Me Enough Money To Settle My Mounting Bar Bills Productions” can there have been such a bracing example of truth in advertising. The Holly and the Ivy is unashamedly middle-brow, middle-class and it got me right in the middle of the waistcoat.
Wynyard Browne’s play takes us back to the late 1940s, to a Norfolk vicarage where a family is gathering for Christmas: the ornery aunts, the estranged journalist daughter with a drink problem, the other daughter who won’t leave her father’s household for her fiancé, the son doing National Service who’s unsure if university is really for him, and at the centre the absent-minded clergyman. It could be the set-up for a ghastly piece of Downton/Cranford wallowing in the glories of the English countryside we have lost, but the play (written at around the same time it’s set) is funny, charming and lets its characters argue about the point of life and the meaning of love in a way which is miles from the self-conscious folksiness of those TV shows.
The characters are built with that terrific assurance of some mid-century writers (C.P. Snow and Anthony Powell spring to mind), which balances the need for them to represent social types or attitudes to life, whilst also allowing them rein to be individual and surprising. Stuart McGugan plays not only a country clergyman, but a man who realizes that after a lifetime of playing the “country clergyman” he has made his own role for himself whether he likes it or not. Chris Grahamson’s jerky performance as his son gives an impression of a similar man at the other end of his life: the serviceman who’s pretty sure he’s not a soldier, but not certain what character he can fit himself to. Amidst this closely studied characterisation, the parallels to contemporary life – the argument over whether university is for learning a profession or “finding yourself”, the friction between family members who’ve ended up in decidedly different income brackets, the attempts by the younger generation to hide the subjects of booze and sex from their elders – are much more powerful because they seem so unforced.
The show isn’t perfect. The initial scene is marred by Tom Butcher wrestling so hard with an assumed Scottish accent than he sets his feet every time he needs to attack a line, and Alan Leith is sometimes slightly too much the worldly raisonneur (despite being terrifically watchable throughout). Some moments are a little too explicit for a modern audience: when someone declares that they want their life to be founded on some kind of eternal values, we wince rather more than we would if they’d simply stripped off and humped the sofa. But this is a terrific production, and a good night out.