The Holly And The Ivy – November 2008


By Wynyard Browne

Directed by Michael Lunney

Company: Middle Ground

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 21st November 2011

This was a revival of an earlier Middle Ground touring production which we’d seen at the Connaught several years ago. We’d enjoyed the previous performance well enough, and tonight was a similar story.

The set was as before. A large sitting room with a sofa and chairs, a window at the back showing us the local church, doors off back right (vicar’s study), back left (kitchen and dining room), and an entrance lobby front left, with access to the stairs. The time is 1947, Christmas Eve, so there’s a Christmas tree and some decorations.

When the play starts, Jenny is finishing the decorating, but is interrupted by her friend, David, and her father the vicar, who needs to get to a school for some pre-Christmas event. From these conversations we learn that a group of people are expected for Christmas, including a couple of aunts. David wants Jenny to come away with him when he leaves for South America at the end of January, but she feels she can’t leave her father. There’s another sister, Margaret, who could come home and look after him, but it seems to be generally accepted in the family that that’s not going to happen. Jenny’s brother Michael arrives unexpectedly – he’s doing his National Service and managed to wangle some leave by making out it could be his last Christmas with his father – and he helps David to decorate the room while Jenny gets on with the dinner.     Then the aunts arrive, and they’re well worth the price of admission. Aunt Bridget is Irish, the vicar’s sister, I assume, as he’s also Irish, and she’s as outspoken as you could wish for. Aunt Lydia was presumably married to Bridget’s other brother, long since dead, but she’s still part of the family. Both women have all the instincts of the most intuitive vulture, and they soon figure out that David has sort of proposed to Jenny. So their next task is to arrange for a happy ending by getting Margaret to take over the job of caring for her father so that Jenny can get away with her young man. Aside from all this, aunt Lydia has a nice line in offering to help, but sinking happily back into the sofa when the offer is turned down, while Bridget insists on sitting in her preferred spot on the sofa, and she only has to stand and look, for others to realise their mistake and move. They were very good fun.

A chap called Richard turned up – Margaret’s godfather, otherwise not sure what his connection with the family was – but he hadn’t brought Margaret with him from London. She had the flu and couldn’t come. Nevertheless she turns up shortly afterwards, and appears to be the career woman type; smart suit, acts superior, and appears rather unemotional. During a chat with her sister, which starts out as a confrontation and ends up as a heart-to-heart, she confesses that she’d had a child by an American soldier she’d fallen in love with during the war. The soldier died, and after a few years the child also died, of meningitis. As she was an unmarried mother, she felt she couldn’t tell their father, and so she rarely came to visit. Her problem now is that she can’t face the prospect of coming back to stay with her father and living a lie for the rest of her life.

After dinner, Margaret and Michael head off for the cinema, while the others sit around and ‘chat’. Lydia and Bridget have decided that for Jenny to find happiness, the vicar will have to retire. He’s not keen on that idea, so they have to tell him about Jenny’s situation. To add to his troubles, Michael and Margaret come home well sozzled; she faints and is taken up to bed. Michael tries to cover it up, but it’s no good. He makes some comment about nobody being able to tell the vicar anything, and also heads for bed.

The next day, Christmas, brings more revelations. The vicar persuades Michael to reveal all he knows (Margaret spilled the beans to him the night before in the pub), and so the scene is set for the final showdown between father and daughter. It goes quite well, remarkably. Since he already knows the story, it’s more a case of sorting out their relationship. It’s clear that personal relationships have never been his strong suit, and he’s aware that his parishioners don’t get as much pastoral care from him as he feels he should have been giving. With Margaret on the point of leaving (they had trains on Christmas day back then!), he finally manages to connect with her, and for the first time in their lives, they actually talk to each other like normal human beings. This changes her attitude so much that she’s quite happy to stay now and take care of the old man, and when David turns up to get Jenny’s final answer, she can give him the ‘yes’ they both wanted.

It’s an interesting play, though not the best written. The dialogue is stilted at times, and the structure feels unbalanced; we get to know Jenny so much more than Margaret, yet Margaret and her experiences are really the key to the whole piece. The vicar’s attitudes are also very important, but again I don’t feel they come across strongly enough for the final confrontation to be as moving as it could have been. I was very moved to realise that this man has only just found out that he had a grandchild and lost it as well, but this was only a passing thought, when it could have been more prominent. The play is still enjoyable, but not as strong as some.

In terms of the performances, the aunts and cousin Richard (now I’ve checked the program I know how he fits in) were the strongest and most entertaining. The others were mostly fine, but Philip Madoc, fine actor though he is, didn’t seem able to get the lines across clearly in the Irish accent he was putting on. Not that there was anything wrong with his accent as such, though at times I sensed the lilting Welsh straining to burst through, but his delivery was so abrupt that I couldn’t distinguish the words. When he spoke more slowly, as he did after the final scene with Margaret, it was fine. It’s always a shame to lose so much dialogue, and I would like to see this play sometime with the father’s part more strongly cast, though as it’s not the greatest play I’m not sure who would put that on. So on the whole I enjoyed the evening, our last but one up at Guildford this year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at