The play begins “last Christmas” in the kitchen of the suburban home of Sidney Hopcroft and Jane Hopcroft, both in their thirties. Their home is modest, but it has modern appliances, such as a fridge and a washing machine. Jane busily scrubs the floor with a cloth, singing as she works. Sidney walks cheerily into the room, wearing fancy, somewhat old-fashioned clothes.
Take careful note of the setting, not just the characters. First, it’s suburban. This was a time when the British middle class was expanding and moving out of cities and into suburbia. Note, also, the modern appliances—familiar signifiers of a bourgeois, middle-class, materialistic environment. Meanwhile, Jane and Sidney both seem blandly happy in their respective gender roles. Altogether, it seems like the kind of scene you’d find in an ad.
As Jane scrubs, Sidney notes that he has “a few games lined up .... just in case.” He also points out that Jane doesn’t really need to scrub the kitchen, since their guests that night won’t be standing there. Jane points out that some of the women might want to look at the kitchen, but Sidney argues that bankers’ wives won’t care about someone else’s kitchen. He mentions that he spilled something on a sideboard, and Jane, agitated, immediately goes to clean the spillage, complaining that now the house will smell of polish.
We get a lot of information here. Jane and Sidney are planning a party, and Jane sees to be more invested in keeping up appearances than Sidney—in fact, she seems to be interested in cleaning, just for the sake of cleaning. Also notice that Sidney seems highly attuned to his guests’ social status: his goal this evening, it can be assumed, isn’t just to have fun; it’s to do some networking.
Sidney asks Jane for a “Christmas kiss,” but Jane instead says that Sidney’s tie smells like fly spray. Then Sidney notes that it’s 8:28, meaning that the party officially starts in two minutes. Suddenly, the bell rings. Frantically, Jane says that she hasn’t sprayed the kitchen yet, and pulls out a spray canister. Sidney goes to let the first two guests, the Potters, into the house. These guests, Dick and Lottie Potter, are never seen, but their loud, braying laughs now fill the house.
Sidney and Jane are neurotically, but also comically, interested in the tiny details of their party, right down to the number of minutes until it starts. Also, Ayckbourn lets readers know upfront that the Potters will never be seen. This is interesting because it might suggest that the entire act will be set in the kitchen, away from the guests and “behind the scenes” of this ordinary, banal Christmas. And in a way, that’s exactly what the play is: a behind-the-scenes look at what it means to live an ordinary middle-class life.
Sidney ducks back into the kitchen, where Jane is still spraying. Jane remembers that she’s been wearing slippers—she’s left her dress shoes by the fireplace, and begs Sidney to go get them at once. Sidney retreats back into the room with the Potters, and there is a sudden bellow of laughter. Then, Sidney returns to the kitchen, carrying Jane’s shoes. He notes that it’s lucky “it’s only Dick and Lottie” in the other room, rather than the Brewster-Wrights.
Sidney ranks his guests into a very clear hierarchy. Dick and Lottie are just bodies in the room—he doesn’t particularly care about impressing them (which may be why he rudely left them alone). The Brewster-Wrights (even their last name sounds pompous and fancy), however, are people whose favor Sidney is trying to win.
Jane and Sidney leave the kitchen, and the sound of laughter and conversation from offstage fills the kitchen. Sidney returns to look for a bottle opener, and suddenly the doorbell rings. Sidney goes to open the door; a moment later he comes back into the kitchen and hisses, “It’s them.” Jane knows that Sidney means Ronald Brewster-Wright and his wife, Marion Brewster-Wright.
The fact that Sidney and Jane both know who “they” are would suggest that they both regard the Brewster-Wrights as important people (though what makes them so important is anybody’s guess).
A moment later, Jane, Sidney, and Ronald Brewster-Wright—a man in his mid-forties who is “impressive without being distinguished”—burst into the kitchen. Ronald’s trousers are wet, and Jane is apologizing profusely for spilling on him. She offers him a tea towel, which he uses to dry his trousers.
Ayckbourn’s description of Ronald is worth keeping in mind. Nothing in this play, when it comes down to it, is particularly distinguished: the characters and setting and dialogue are all mostly tawdry and banal. By spilling a drink of Ronald’s trousers, Jane sets a more plainly comic, slapstick-y tone.
Marion Brewster-Wright, Ronald’s wife, enters the kitchen. She praises the kitchen, especially the shiny “working surfaces” and the cupboard drawers, which can be filled with “all sorts of things” and then shut and forgotten about. Marion also notices the washing machine, which was Sidney’s Christmas present to Jane. She notices the dial that reads, “Whites-coloreds” and jokes, “it’s apartheid,” a comment that Jane doesn’t understand.
Jane was right after all—bankers’ wives would want to see the kitchen (and Ronald is, in fact, a banker, though we don’t know this yet). So far, there hasn’t been any really substantive conversation: the guests are just making chit-chat about appliances and other material things. Even when Marion tries to allude to politics and current events, however loosely, Jane has no idea what she’s talking about. (The apartheid system of racial segregation was still in effect in South Africa when this play was released.)
The doorbell rings, and Jane leaves the room to greet the guests. Marion asks Sidney, who she calls “Mr. Hopcraft,” how he managed to “squeeze” the washing machine into the kitchen. Sidney explains that he’s built all the shelves in the kitchen and measured the washing machine to fit underneath the shelves. Jane pokes her head into the kitchen and announces that the Jacksons, Eva and Geoffrey, have arrived. Jane and Sidney walk out of the kitchen.
The characters keep harping on about the washing machine, almost as if they’re incapable of talking about anything else. By this point, audiences are starting to get a sense for the “rhythm” of the play—every few minutes, somebody walks in or out of the kitchen, and sometimes, there’s nobody in the kitchen at all.
Marion and Ronald stay in the kitchen, studying the washing machine. Marion tells her husband to “make our excuses quite shortly,” since she wants to get home to her children, finds Dick Potter’s jokes horrible, and doesn’t like the drinks. Ronald complains that Jane spilled soda on his trousers while pouring him a drink.
Marion and Ronald don’t want to be at this party: they don’t seem to take Sidney and Jane seriously, and dislike the other guests. It’s clear that they consider themselves to be superior to the others.
Sidney returns to the kitchen to summon the Brewster-Wrights into the drawing room. Marion tells him, “we can’t tear ourselves away from your divine kitchen,” but she and Ronald follow Sidney out. A moment later, Jane returns with an empty bowl, which she fills with chips. Sidney follows her, explaining that they’re out of tonic water. Jane asks him to tell Lottie to stop eating so many chips.
Just a second after bad-mouthing the hosts, Marion flatters them for having a nice kitchen. So far, it’s worth noting, a decent chunk of the conversation has been about the kitchen, suggesting that Jane was right after all (and also that these guests aren’t very imaginative in their conversation).
Jane and Sidney continue looking for the tonic water, and Sidney complains that she’s “let us down” by forgetting where the tonic is—or, worse, forgetting to buy extra tonic. Sidney leaves the kitchen, and Jane stands alone, on the verge of tears. Suddenly she opens a drawer and begins counting out coins. She puts on her husband’s raincoat and then goes out into the rain, leaving the back door ajar.
Sidney’s tone is bullying and callous: he seems not to notice that he’s hurting his wife’s feelings, perhaps because he’s so fixated on impressing his (supposedly important) guests, the Brewster-Wrights. It’s interesting that Jane takes on the more active, physical role, running out to get more tonic. Also notice that she wears a man’s coat, symbolizing that she’s performing a more traditionally masculine role.
Sidney returns to the kitchen, carrying Marion’s glass, which needs tonic water. Then, Eva walks in. She’s in her thirties and “makes no concessions in either manner or appearance.” Eva explains that she needs some water so that she can take her pills and avoid “turning into a raving lunatic.” She’s been taking pills since the age of eight, she claims, and finds it disturbing that her existence is “geared round swallowing tablets every three hours,” including in the middle of the night. She accepts a glass of water, drinks from it, and then throws it in the garbage can.
In contrast to the other guests, Eva is comically frank in her conversation—instead of making idle chitchat about washing machines, she “goes for it” and talks about her depression (or other, unnamed mental illness). In a way, all the characters structure their existences around material things, on which they’re completely dependent—Eva with her pills, Jane with her appliances, etc. Yet Eva is the only character who seems not to like this state of affairs.
Eva, speaking half to herself, goes on to explain that she and her husband, Geoffrey, have left their dog, George, in the car so that it won’t get too restless. However, the dog has a habit of sounding the car horn with its nose. As she speaks, Sidney retrieves the glass from the trash. Eva, noticing him, says, “My God was that me?” and says, “I am finally going mad.” She leaves the kitchen.
Even though Eva in some ways seems more mentally unstable than the other characters, she is also more self-aware. At least she’s not obsessed with cleaning, like Jane, or currying favor, like Sidney.
Marion enters the kitchen, asking about her glass. She sips from it and claims that it’s much better now that it has a little tonic water—however, Sidney points out that it’s pure gin. Marion teases Sidney, “what are you trying to do to me?” Sidney points out that the mistletoe is in another room, and Marion says, “Lead on,” though she can’t remember Sidney’s name. Sidney absent-mindedly closes the back door.
Marion is so out of touch with her senses, and reality, that she doesn’t even realize what she’s drinking (and this also foreshadows her later alcoholism). There’s also some awkward flirting between Marion and Sidney, even though Marion clearly isn’t interested in the conversation (she can’t even remember Sidney’s name) and is just going through the motions.
A moment later, Jane arrives at the back door, soaking wet, with a carton of tonic waters. She finds that the door is locked. She knocks gently, then louder, but nobody hears. She decides to try the front door. Sidney comes back into the kitchen, carrying an empty chip-bowl. He sees the back door, realizes his mistake, and runs out into the rain. A moment later, he rushes back inside, and Jane comes in through the front door, her boots squelching on the floor.
Even though viewers can’t see the living-room of the Hopcrofts’ apartment, they can hear the squelching of the boots, symbolically undermining all the time that Jane presumably spent cleaning the floors. Jane is doubly humiliated, first because she has to walk around in a man’s raincoat at her own party and second because she hates dirtiness.
Back in the kitchen, Sidney asks Jane what happened, and Jane explains that she went out for tonic water—Ronald Brewster-Wright let her in again. She notes, “I don’t think he recognized me” and admits that she doesn’t think she can face her guests now. Sidney says she should apologize to the guests.
Jane is so self-conscious that she doesn’t want to continue on as a hostess. The fact that Ronald doesn’t recognize her in a raincoat reinforces the fact that he’s quite indifferent to his two hosts, and doesn’t know them well.
Just then, Ronald enters the kitchen, and Jane rushes out the back door rather than face her guest. Ronald explains that he just let in a “little short chap.” Sidney hesitates, then says, “He was from the off-license” and brought some tonic water. Ronald and Sidney discuss Sidney’s general store business, and Sidney brings up a “chat” the two of them had the other day. Ronald hesitates and then says, “I think the bank could probably see their way to helping you out.”
Sidney keeps up the charade and tells a bizarre lie about having an “off-license” deliveryman, so that he can ask Ronald for a loan. Readers don’t really know what Sidney does for a living (something with general stores, but that’s it). This, it’s suggested, is the conversation Sidney has been waiting all night to have: he’s desperate for that loan.
Geoffrey Jackson, a handsome, confident man in his mid-thirties, enters and asks, “Is there a chance of sanctuary here?” He complains that Dick Potter is telling the women annoying jokes. Sidney claims that Dick is a “fascinating character,” a teacher who works with young people most of the time. Geoffrey notes that Dick’s wife Lottie has sexy legs, especially for a woman of her age. Sidney agrees, but then says he hasn’t really seen Lottie’s legs.
Geoffrey is more comfortable talking about sex than the other characters in the play, and here he introduces some “guy talk.” Sidney joins in, sensing that that’s what he’s supposed to do, but he also gives the sense of being out of his element.
Suddenly, Jane appears outside the back door. Sidney waves her away, without his guests seeing him. Meanwhile, Ronald asks Geoffrey about a party the two of them went to, during which Geoffrey flirted with a blonde. Geoffrey brags, “You have no idea,” and Sidney tries to laugh along and give “noises of sexual approval.” Geoffrey complains that he wishes he could “bury” his wife sometimes. Ronald points out that Geoffrey is lucky to have Eva, since she probably has a “jolly good idea” by now, but still lives with Geoffrey. Geoffrey says that Eva has learned to live by his rules. He adds that there’s too much “good stuff wandering around.”
In this farcical section, Sidney manages to stop his guests from seeing Jane—it would seem that Ronald and Geoffrey are too busy talking about women to notice the actual woman standing by the back door. Notice that Geoffrey never explicitly talks about sex or adultery, but gives the impression of having cheated on his wife. He also boasts that he’s in charge in his household: his wife Eva has to accept his infidelities. It’s unclear if Geoffrey really is the playboy he claims to be, or if he’s only bragging. The mention of “burying” Eva is also a dark joke foreshadowing her later attempts at suicide.
Eva strolls into the kitchen and claims that the men have “abandoned” the ladies at the party. Sidney leaves the kitchen. Eva tells Geoffrey that they should get going, since their dog needs to go home and eat its dinner. She also tells Ronald, “Your wife is looking slightly less than pleased.”
The “guy talk” comes to an abrupt end when Eva walks into the room. Ronald, who’d seemed to admire Geoffrey for cheating on his wife, is now reminded of his own spouse.
As Eva leaves, Geoffrey brings up a business deal with Ronald—he wants to know if Walter Harrison’s new shopping complex in the area has an architect yet. When Ronald says no, Geoffrey asks Ronald to put in a word with the owner of the complex, and Ronald promises he will.
Geoffrey, it turns out, is just as eager as Sidney to get in Ronald’s good graces: he needs Ronald to recommend him as an architect. Ronald clearly has a lot of influence in his community, but it’s never fully explained why, beyond the fact that he’s a banker.
Marion enters the kitchen, just as Ronald is leaving. She tells Geoffrey that the house is horribly ugly, and Geoffrey agrees—he explains that houses like this are designed to be cheap, because people in the neighborhood usually aren’t choosey. She tells Geoffrey that he must come visit her and Ronald.
Geoffrey and Marion enjoy a rare moment of camaraderie (which, interestingly, contrasts with the “guy talk” of a few minutes ago), making fun of the Hopcrofts for their tiny, ugly house. The Hopcrofts have spent a lot of time making their home look nice, but their guests dismiss it right away. Marion’s invitation to Geoffrey could be interpreted as flirtatious, or it could just mean that Marion isn’t keen on spending any more time with Eva Jackson.
Sidney and Ronald, now wearing his overcoat, come back into the kitchen. Marion thanks Sidney and tells him that he and Jane should visit them sometime—assuming he can ever find Jane. Alone in the kitchen, Sidney smiles and rubs his hands together.
Notice that Marion invites Sidney and Jane to visit (whereas she extended this invitation to Geoffrey but not Eva). Sidney is clearly overjoyed to have extracted a promise of money from the powerful, well-connected Ronald.
Jane knocks on the back door and Sidney lets her in. Jane is a “sodden mess”—she explains that she stayed outside until all the guests had left. Sidney claims that there was nothing he could have said to the guests that would’ve explained Jane’s bizarre behavior. The guests, he adds, are people “who can be very, very useful to us.”
Sidney is so pleased with his agreement with Ronald that he’s oblivious to Jane’s sadness and humiliation. He sees his guests as means to an end—financial success—rather than as interesting human beings.
Sidney tells Jane that he’ll watch some television now—since it’s Christmas Eve, there should be something good on. Sidney walks out, leaving Jane along in the kitchen. She stares at the dirty things scattered around the room. She picks up a damp cloth and begins to clean the room, singing happily to herself.
Sidney’s obliviousness and lack of feeling for his wife suggests that he’s single-mindedly focused on becoming rich. The act ends with the poignant image of Jane cleaning the same room she’d been cleaning earlier in the day. This could be interpreted as a symbol for the Sisyphean repetitiveness of Jane’s life. But at the same time, Jane seems more content than the other characters in the play: she’s the only one of them who seems to take genuine pleasure in something, however superficial it might seem (whereas the other characters seem more restless and uneasy).