By Bernard Farrell. Directed by Alan Stanford. With Bill Golding, Lynn Cahill, Stephen Brennan, Mark O'Regan, Kathryn Summer and Geraldine Plunkett. At the Gate Theatre until 22 December.
This Bernard Farrell yuletide play, set on Christmas Eve in a rural household, uses a seasonal reunion to send up the Irish idea of a wholesome family Christmas. Focussing on the home of an elderly father who lives with his adult daughter and husband, it gives a dusting down to many of the themes found so frequently in Irish drama.
Emigration is an issue put to the fore by the return of Arthur (Brennan) and Irene’s (Cahill) childhood neighbour Declan (O’Regan) from New Zealand. Declan returns as the proud owner of a supermarket chain Down Under, and comes bearing a busty blonde wife on his arm.
Amanda (Summer) provides the play with much of its early humour with her bubbly performance as the air-headed New Zealander who enthusiastically gives the typical Irish country house her expert feng shui approval.
Her flirtatious interaction with Arthur, which is loaded with double entendres and points up repressed Irish attitudes to sexuality, also gives the comedy many of its funniest moments.
Declan comes off as brash, arrogant and self-absorbed, even if Irene’s cranky, nosy father Matty (Golding) won’t let him forget his past as a chain-smoking youth working in the local supermarket. Declan’s bold exterior contrasts with the irritable but considered manner of Arthur, who bends over backwards to avoid answering invitations to join his old friend in New Zealand.
Irene rides out the ensuing farce over a communal dip in the hot tub in the back garden as a comely stay-at-home Irish woman concerned only with keeping everyone happy and proceedings on schedule. German mulled wine that nobody likes is served, while the gaudy US-style Christmas lights in the front garden are proudly switched on despite fears they may cause a road accident.
Irene’s need to display old Christmas cards from persons since deceased just to fill the mantelpiece illustrates how all may not be as well as she is seeking to make out. The inopportune arrival of her mother Gladys (Plunkett) resurges the conflict over Arthur’s perceived inability to provide a grandchild and highlights the estranged nature of Glady’s marriage to Matty, the latter of which concerns the age-old Irish chestnut of a fight over land.
As ever with such situations, it all comes to a head at dinner, just after Arthur’s speech rejoicing in the impending birth of Christ gets hilariously taken up the wrong way. Farrell whips up the drama to crisis point before bringing it to a mostly happy but nonetheless believable close.
Ultimately, though, Many Happy Returns is more family farce than genuine drama and more light entertainment than laugh-out-loud funny. Theatre-goers looking for an enjoyable play that’s not too serious and has a Christmas theme won’t be disappointed, though they will come out of The Gate smiling but not laughing.