The Holly And The Ivy is darker than you might expect. The title may at first suggest something resembling the cosy, sentimental Christmas films some television channels have been showing since early October. But there’s a surprising amount of grit and realism in this seasonal 1947 play, which after initial West End success became a film a few years later, starring some of the leading British actors of the time, including Ralph Richardson and Celia Johnson.
The Middle Ground Theatre Company have been behind successful national tours of the play in the winter months for the last 18 years, another indication that The Holly And The Ivy has something going for it. It’s set on Christmas Eve, 1947 in a Norfolk vicarage. Martin Gregory, a recently widowed clergyman, is cared for by his daughter Jenny. Christmas brings other members of the family to the house, including a livey but inwardly troubled son, an estranged older daughter, a cousin and two aged aunts (one with an explosive temper, the other wise and calm). There’s also David, a neighbour with designs on Jenny. It’s a combustible mix, and though the play develops slowly sparks begin to fly as emotions are laid bare and uncomfortable truths revealed.
It’s clear that the (now largely forgotten) playwright Wynyard Browne is attempting by unravelling these complex family relationships to address important moral issues including honesty, goodness and the true meaning of religion. The result is a thoughtful, absorbing play, with plenty of warmth and humour to offset the moral seriousness. Browne’s traditional approach and an authentic 1940s set – a vicarage sitting room with wood panelled walls, an open fire and a large window overlooking a snow-covered country churchyard – also lend the play considerable period charm.
The performances are excellent, with Stuart McGugan (like several of the cast a familiar television face) leading the way as the kindly vicar forced to confront the consequences a committed religious life has had for his family. Rachel Waters is very affecting as Jenny, the loving and dutiful daughter who in a play of intriguing contrasts at first appears the opposite of her sister Margaret (Sally Day) – a character who’s superficially harder and more self-possessed but is nursing an unhappy secret. There’s another fine performance from George Telfer as the worldly London cousin, and it’s also a pleasure to see Hildegard Neil, who’s had a long and distinguished acting career, appearing in New Brighton. She’s very impressive as the sad but sensible Aunt Lydia.
There’ll be pantomimes galore in local theatres this Christmas, but this is something different. If (like me) you’ve never come across the play before you might well feel after seeing it that you’ve discovered a hidden gem.
The Holly And The Ivy continues at the Floral Pavilion until Sunday 30 November. There are evening performances on Friday and Saturday, and matinee performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For more information, click HERE.