Melissa Blease reviews Winter Solstice at Ustinov Studio, Bath from Wednesday 28 February – Saturday 3 March

Albert, Bettina and their daughter Marie ostensibly lead a comfortable, middle-class life. How do we know they’re middle-class? Because the first third of prolific German playwright and director Roland Schimmelpfennig’s latest work, translated by David Tushingham and presented by the Actors Touring Company and the Orange Tree, goes large on hammering the point home.

The couple have distinctly middle-class occupations (Albert is a social historian, Bettina is a filmmaker); their apartment has big windows and lots of art on the walls; we’re told it’s a household “where no one has ever voted Conservative”; they drink a lot of red wine which we’re constantly reminded is “expensive”… and, as the drama gathers pace, we learn that they’re each having affairs (as every playwright from Ayckbourn to Zola asserts, all middle class couples have affairs – the habit is as necessary to the stereotypical portrayal of middle-class couples as a job in the creative industries, not voting Conservative and an appreciation of art and expensive red wine are). Anyway…

It’s Christmas Eve, and Bettina’s mother Corinna is coming to stay for the holidays. Bettina and Corinna have an uncomfortable relationship (another cue, surely, that we’re on middle-class family territory here; according to contemporary playwright convention, few middle-class daughters get on with their mothers, and most middle-class sons have serious issues with their fathers). And it’s made even more uncomfortable by the fact that Corinna has invited a stranger that she met on the train to join them for the festive season.

But what sets this familiar dysfunctional family farce apart from, say, a Pinter, or a Rattigan, or a Stoppard (I won’t reference Ayckbourn again, but you know what I mean) are two main inception gambits: our actors are in a rehearsal room setting (trestle tables; office chairs; takeaway coffee cups; water bottles and gaffer tape doubling-up as props that ‘become’ mobile phones, paintbrushes and even a Christmas tree) … and Rudolph – the stranger in our midst, and the object of Corinna’s affections – is, apparently, a neo-Nazi in charmingly benign disguise.

Given the intriguing set-up, it’s a great shame that the two main strengths of Winter Solstice are the distinctly non-traditional staging (the characters both talk to each other, and offer stage directions and directorial motivations that may be, perhaps, taken from the script of Bettina’s latest film?) and the script itself: a witty, dynamic collection of one-liners, impeccable characterisations and smart asides delivered by a bang-on-point cast. Kate Fahy in particular is perfect as the disappointed but eternally optimistic mum Corinna; Felix Hayes too is wonderful in his role as the repressed, defeated Albert.

The observations of (albeit occasionally clumsily stereotypical) liberal family life are cringingly sharp and cleverly funny, and the build-up of tension and anguish are artfully palpable. But somehow, the main thrust of a play that the writer insists should be taken as a warning against allowing the rise of right-wing populism to subtly pervade the living rooms and dining tables of polite society is just too… well, just too subtle.

Yes, Rudolph spews a whole load of claptrap about there being no notable Jewish composers (he also has a thing for Wagner), and offers a toast to Odin, and makes veiled references to eugenics and nationhood and purity. Yes, he’s as befittingly sinister and darkly charismatic as one would imagine a Nazi in charming old gentleman’s clothing to be. But surely in ‘real life’ the family (oh, and Albert’s best friend Konrad – an artist with whom Bettina is having the requisite affair) wouldn’t put up with his befuddled, intrusive, dominating ways for longer than it takes to finish the first bottle of red wine?

Rudolph may be a whizz on the piano and friendly to children, but he’s a crusty, fusty, bigoted old dullard that even the politest of polite middle-class families wouldn’t entertain for long, Christmas Eve or not.

Thought provoking? Yes. Malevolently ominous? Nowhere near enough.