Act Three takes place “next Christmas” in the kitchen of the Brewster-Wrights’ old Victorian house. The kitchen has many modern appliances, but also the “flavor” of the original Victorian design. Ronald sits in an armchair, wearing a scarf and listening to the radio. He reads a book, and laughs out loud every couple seconds.
Ayckbourn first introduced the Brewster-Wrights as an impressive couple with a lot of social status, and their house would seem to support such an interpretation. Victorian architecture still signifies wealth and prestige. However, the chilliness of the house (signaled by Ronald’s scarf) might also symbolize the couple’s cold, emotionless life together.
Eva walks into the rom, wearing a winter coat. She complains that the house is very cold, and Ronald asks her if “her room’s all right.” Eva tells Ronald that “she” would like a sandwich, and adds that “she” is doing much better. Ronald thanks Eva for dropping by, and assures her that Marion appreciates it, too. Marion, he explains, has been living “on her nerves” lately, since she’s very insecure. Eva suggests that this may be because she drinks too much, but Ronald denies this, claiming that she hasn’t been drinking at all, lately.
Ronald offers Eva a drink, and she accepts after turning it down the first time. Just then, the bell rings, and Eva says that it’s probably Geoffrey. Ronald walks off to answer the door. A moment later, Geoffrey walks into the kitchen and asks Eva, “How is she?” Eva replies, “drunk.” Eva asks Geoffrey if he asked Ronald for money, and Geoffrey says he hasn’t. Eva points out that Ronald owes Geoffrey the money, and claims that she’ll bring it up with Ronald after Christmas.
Even after they discuss alcoholism, the characters continue to drink, suggesting that they’re all highly dependent on alcohol (if not actually alcoholics). Eva, not Geoffrey, takes an active role in her family’s finances, while her husband (charismatic and active in the previous acts) is now more passive and laconic. No explanation is offered for why Eva, suicidal in the previous section, seems so much calmer here. The implication is that Eva’s stability and mental health is outside her own control.
Ronald enters the room, noting that there seems to be little alcohol left in the house, even though he bought some recently. He guesses that his maid has been sneaking drinks. Ronald goes off to look in other parts of the house. Alone, Eva tells Geoffrey that she hates working for him—he leaves in the middle of the day, leaving Eva to do all his typing. Eva also suggests that Geoffrey reach out to Sidney Hopcroft, but Geoffrey refuses to get involved in his “seedy little schemes.” Eva replies that ever since the roof of Walter Harrison’s shopping complex caved in and nearly killed the Manager, “Sidney Hopcroft is about your only hope of surviving as an architect in this city.”
Ronald refuses to accept that his wife is an alcoholic and, in all probability, is the one who’s been sneaking drinks. This is also one of the only times in the play when it’s suggested that a woman has a job outside the house. This could be interpreted to signal that the Jacksons’ finances are plummeting since the shopping complex Geoffrey designed collapsed (since he has hired his wife to save money). Finally, notice that Sidney’s fortunes have continued to rise while Geoffrey’s have gone down—but again, Ayckbourn offers no explanation for why this should be so. The result is that Sidney’s good fortune feels as accidental and beyond his own control as does Geoffrey’s bad fortune.
Ronald returns with the drinks, and the three of them toast and drink. Geoffrey notes, “Bit quieter than last Christmas, eh?” He notices the book Ronald was reading—a “saucy” thing, Ronald explains, which he found under “one of the boys’ mattresses.” He tells Geoffrey that he was sorry to hear about the collapsed shopping complex. Geoffrey asks Ronald how his bank is doing, and Ronald explains, “We’re not in the red, yet.”
Ronald is reading a child’s book, suggesting his infantilism (much like in the previous act). Ronald’s fortunes, just like Geoffrey’s, are plummeting: that’s why he’s pleased simply because he’s not losing money.
The bell rings, and Ronald explains that it’s Marion upstairs. Eva goes to attend to Marion. With Geoffrey, Ronald reminisces about his first wife, a woman who left him abruptly and wrote him a letter saying, “she’d had enough.” Ronald next married Marion, but he still thinks about his first wife sometimes. He adds that he still has no idea “what most women think about anything.”
This is one of the few times in the play when a male character explicitly voices his feelings about women. Ronald sees his relationships with women as being unpredictable and beyond his own control. He’s alienated from everything and everyone, even his own wife (who, one would think, he’d understand pretty well).
Eva enters the room again. Ronald asks her how their dog is doing, and Eva tells him, “We had to … give him away.” Ronald remembers that Dick Potter had to have three stitches because of his dog bite. Dick Potter is mountain-climbing in Switzerland this Christmas, meaning “We’ll have to do without old Dick to jolly us up this year.”
The characters often describe Dick as an annoying, bothersome character, but they also seem lonely without Dick in the picture. Also, Eva’s comments could be interpreted to mean that she and Geoffrey had to have George put down because he bit somebody, or that they had to give the dog away because they could no longer afford to take care of him.
Suddenly, Marion walks into the room. She greets the guests and thanks them for coming. Ronald warns her that she needs to put on warmer clothing. After Marion asks him for a drink, Ronald starts to say, “The doctor said very plainly …” Marion cuts him off, saying, “For the love of God, Ronnie, it’s Christmas.” Then, she begins to weep. She tells the guests that she used to be a very beautiful woman. Ronald cries, “Nobody wants your damn picture, now shut up.”
To Marion, Christmas is an excuse to get drunk (as it is for plenty of people). And yet she’s drinking not for its own sake, but because she’s miserable. She’s dissatisfied with the direction her life has gone. Obsessed with appearances, she hates herself for having lost her looks as she’s grown older. Ronald, as unfeeling as ever, offer Marion no sympathy and simply silences her.
The doorbell rings, and Eva goes to see who it is. She comes back to the kitchen and tells Ronald that it’s the Hopcrofts. Ronald says “Oh, good grief,” and Geoffrey adds, “Heaven forbid.” Marion asks Ronald why he doesn’t yell for them to go away, and Ronald replies, “Because he happens to have a very large deposit account with my bank.” Eva suggests that they just sit silently and wait for the Hopcrofts to go away. Ronald turns off the lights in the kitchen. They can hear the Hopcrofts walking around to the back door. The Hopcrofts are dressed in party hats and they’re clearly a little drunk. Suddenly, Ronald says, “I’ve got a nasty feeling I didn’t lock the back door.”
This scene is equal parts slapstick, horror, and social realism. We see how far Ronald has fallen—to the point where just one deposit could make or break his bank. At the beginning of the play, Sidney and Jane had to grovel and flatter in the hopes of getting Ronald’s attention. But now the shoe’s on the other foot: it is Ronald who has to stay in Sidney’s good graces.
Sidney opens the back door, even though Jane tells him not to. He shoots back, “I haven’t yet forgiven you for that business at the party. How did you manage to drop a whole plate of trifle?” Sidney and Jane walk into the kitchen and turn on the light, to find Ronald, Marion, Geoffrey, and Eva trying to hide in various spaces. There’s a pause, and then Marion says, “Boo.”
This is another good example of the play’s tragicomic tone. It’s hilarious, and almost like something out of a sitcom, that the guests are caught in the act of trying to hide from Sidney and Jane. Yet it’s also horribly sad: whatever community these six “friends” once had has been torn apart as their fortunes have veered in wildly different directions.
Ronald offers Sidney and Jane drinks, and Sidney mentions that he’s just come from Walter Harrison’s party. He turns to Geoffrey and says, “You’ll know him, won't you?” He mentions that he and Jane went to the party partly for pleasure, but adds, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
Sidney has evidently become a powerful member of the community (signaled by the fact that he knows Harrison, the owner of the shopping complex). While it’s difficult to know how to interpret Sidney’s character (and this is largely up to the actors and directors, not just Ayckbourn), Ayckbourn suggests that Sidney, for all his new wealth, is still a rather petty, pathetic character. He thinks in empty clichés, and doesn’t seem to understand the source of his own fortune.
Jane offers Ronald and Marion their presents, which they open, confused. Jane and Sidney explain that the presents are a set of electrical screwdrivers for Ronald and a bottle of gin for Marion. Jane also gives Ronald two “rather ghastly woolly toys” for Ronald and Marion’s children. Finally, Jane produces a tiny bell, which she gives to Geoffrey, saying that he can put it on George’s collar. She apologizes for not bringing any presents for Geoffrey and Eva—she didn’t know they’d be there.
Sidney’s present for Ronald is pricey, a signifier of his new social status. But it’s also impersonal—nothing in the play so far suggests that Ronald would particularly enjoy receiving screwdrivers for Christmas. Even more impersonal is Marion’s bottle of gin: apparently, the Hopcrofts don’t realize Marion is an alcoholic (or don’t care, or are even trying to mock her for her addiction). The Hopcrofts are so obsessed with material things that they lack any sense of empathy or compassion for others.
Ronald tells Sidney and Jane, “You’ll have to excuse us if we’re not our usual cheery selves.” However, Marion says, “I’m perfectly cheery.” Eva mentions that Geoffrey is “dying” to do jobs for Sidney, and Sidney replies, “I’ll certainly keep him in mind. Really rather depends.”
This is a good example of a place where the actors and director can choose how to interpret Ayckbourn’s dialogue. Marion could be speaking sarcastically, or not. And depending on how Sidney delivers his line, he could be dangling his new wealth in front of Geoffrey, or he could be genuinely clueless.
Sidney and Jane tell the others, “We’re going to get you all jumping about.” Sidney proceeds to tell Jane about his idea for a game, but because the radio is playing too loudly, it’s impossible to hear what he’s saying. Jane and Sidney proceed to remove all the chairs in the kitchen, and then roll up the carpet.
For the third time in the play, Sidney tries to get everyone to play a game. And this time, due to his new status, he succeeds: the guests have no desire to play, but they’re too desperate to say no.
Sidney explains that they’ll be playing a game called Musical Dancing. The point of the game is to stop dancing at the exact moment when the music stops. The person who’s caught dancing after the music stops will get a forfeit (an item they must carry), and at the end of the game, the person with the least forfeits gets a chocolate Father Christmas (i.e., Santa Claus).
The game is a sly parody of the different characters’ struggles for material success. In a way, they’ve been “dancing” for prizes all along: Geoffrey tries to charm Ronald into giving him an architectural contract, for example. Thus, the game is a microcosm for the middle-class world the characters inhabit.
The game begins, and everyone but Jane and Sidney begins dancing. Marion dances in a shaky “classical ballet style,” while the others dance “sheepishly and reluctantly.” Ronald gets the first forfeit, an apple under the chin, followed by Eva, who gets an orange between the knees. The rest of the game proceeds more quickly, with the characters all getting forfeits. Marion’s forfeit is to drink a shot of gin, which Ronald tries to protect—but when he does so, he drops his own forfeit, a spoon in the mouth. Thus, Jane gives him another forfeit, a pear on the spoon in his mouth.
It’s perfectly obvious that none of the characters (except perhaps Marion) want to play the game, but they play along anyway in an effort to stay in Sidney’s good graces. The game, much like the Hopcrofts’ gifts, is absurd and impersonal: again, Marion is made to drink. Finally, notice that neither of the Hopcrofts is playing the game: as the organizers (and, as we’ve seen, the people with the most social clout), they have the privilege of watching everyone else humiliating themselves for the sake of potential money or status.
The game proceeds, with the characters “accumulating bizarre appendages.” Eventually, Sidney no longer stops the music at all: he just yells out, “Dance. Dance. Dance. Keep dancing. Dance …” And the curtain falls.
The play ends with a tragicomic image of the characters dancing. The sight is funny, but also disturbing, since it suggests that the characters are so desperate to succeed that they’re willing to throw away all dignity. For now, Sidney and Jane seem to be on top, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay there. In the unstable middle-class world in which this play takes place, everything is in a state of flux.