Act Two takes place “This Christmas” in the kitchen of Geoffrey and Eva’s fourth-floor flat (apartment). The kitchen seems untidy—the appliances “have seen better days” and the furniture is plain. Eva sits at the kitchen table, writing something in a notepad. After a few moments of frustration, she tears up the page and starts again.
Act Two takes place in a very different kind of middle-class home, that of Geoffrey and Eva. Unlike Sidney and Jane, this couple doesn’t seem to place too much stock in appearances. Notice that the act opens with another image of repetition, echoing the end of the previous act.
From offstage, Geoffrey plays with his dog, George. He walks into the kitchen and kisses Eva. Eva barely notices—she’s too busy writing. Geoffrey pours himself a drink and complains that Walter Harrison’s shopping complex, which he’s been designing, is proceeding slowly, and it’s going to cost twice as much as he’d thought.
Geoffrey and Eva show no fondness for each other: Eva doesn’t even kiss her husband, and Geoffrey seems much more concerned with his architectural project (the shopping complex mentioned in the previous act) than in his wife’s well-being.
Geoffrey notices that Eva seems distracted. He points out that she’s still in her dressing gown. Then, he mentions the conversation they had last night. As they’d discussed, Geoffrey will go and live with Sally. He hopes that Eva isn’t bitter about what’s happened, and promises that eventually he’ll want to see Eva again. Finally, he claims that he’ll be moved out by Boxing Day.
Though never mentioned again, Geoffrey seems to be contemplating running away with a woman named Sally, with whom, it’s implied, he’s been having an affair. However, Geoffrey discusses the matter obliquely, so it’s unclear exactly what has happened.
Geoffrey recalls that some friends will be coming by soon and realizes that there’s only a little bit of liquor in the flat. As he rummages through the drawers looking for alcohol, he reminds Eva that the people coming to the flat that night are really Eva’s friends, not his. One of these is “the up and coming Mr. Hopcroft,” and Geoffrey has no intention of being polite to him, even though Mr. Hopcroft wants Geoffrey to come work for him. Eva says nothing.
Bizarrely, Geoffrey and Eva are having a Christmas party, even though Geoffrey is apparently on the verge of leaving his wife altogether. Sidney Hopcroft, a pathetic, struggling businessman in the previous act, is rapidly becoming a successful, respected figure, though why this has happened is never explained.
Geoffrey picks up a dishcloth and carries it around with him. He turns to Eva and claims, “I’m being very patient,” and then says that he might lose his temper, in which case he’ll probably hit Eva and she’ll “smash everything in the flat.” Just then, the bell rings. Geoffrey goes to answer the door and tells Eva to go to bed, so that things will be easier. Alone in the kitchen, Eva finishes writing her note. She pins it to the table with a kitchen knife.
Geoffrey alludes to having hit Eva in the past. He’s a contemptible character: someone who seemingly takes out his frustration with his job and his marriage by bullying his wife in various ways. Notice that Eva, in contrast to her persona in the previous act, has yet to speak. However, the ominous way she attaches her note to the table alerts the audience that something isn’t right.
Eva immediately turns to the window. She opens it and stands on the ledge. Geoffrey comes back into the kitchen, explaining that the “bloody Hopcrofts” have arrived. He cleans some glasses and complains that Jane Hopcroft is too fussy about cleanliness. Just then, he notices that Eva is standing by the window. He pulls her back inside, and she begins to moan and wail.
Eva is trying to commit suicide: she’s alluded to her problems with mental illness in Act One, and now her pills seem unable to improve her mood. The passage sets up a contrast between the pettiness of Geoffrey’s concerns about the party and the deep seriousness of Eva’s suicide attempt—Ayckbourn will riff on this contrast for the rest of the act.
Geoffrey notices Eva’s note on the table and reads it. He asks Eva, “what do you mean, a burden to everyone?” Suddenly, Eva stands up and tries to cut herself with a bread knife. Geoffrey stops her and says he needs to call a doctor, who’ll probably be able to “calm you down a bit.” He tells Eva to wait in the kitchen while he makes the call.
Geoffrey recognizes that Eva has left a suicide note on the kitchen table. But despite this—whether because of his obliviousness, the absurdity of the play’s world, or, more darkly, because he wants her to kill herself—he leaves her alone.
Alone, Eva writes another note. Then, she turns to the oven and sticks her head inside. Jane walks into the room, carrying some glasses. Eva tries to sit up, and bonks her head on the inside of the oven. Jane tells her, “You shouldn’t be on the cold floor in your condition, you know.” Jane notices that the oven is dirty and says, “I must clean that oven if it kills me.” She looks around the kitchen for oven cleaner.
Gradually, the tone of the act becomes more and more farcical. Jane doesn't even realize that Eva is trying to kill herself: Jane is so obsessed with cleaning things that she assumes Eva is just cleaning her oven. The passage has a few choice examples of dramatic irony: Jane casually uses the idiomatic phrase “if it kills me,” even though Eva is literally trying to kill herself.
Geoffrey walks back into the room, and Jane asks him if she could borrow an apron. Geoffrey nods and explains that he’s called a doctor, who’s out on another call. He decides to go out and find the doctor, which he claims should take no more than ten minutes. Jane promises to keep an eye on Eva while Geoffrey is gone. Geoffrey removes the knives from the room, and then walks out. He claims that he’s taking the knives downstairs to the group of Muslims having a big party. As Geoffrey walks out, the bell rings.
Geoffrey’s time estimate seems pretty low (and, as it turns out, he’s gone for much longer than ten minutes). Also, his allusion to the Muslim party downstairs is interesting, because in the 1970s immigrants from Muslim countries began to come to the U.K. in greater numbers than ever before. Jane, oblivious as ever, doesn’t question Geoffrey’s bizarre explanation for removing the knives from the room.
Alone with Eva, Jane tells her that George is getting big. She adds that Dick Potter is very good with dogs. She also tells Eva that she usually prefers cleaning to socializing at parties—she’s never enjoyed drinking and chatting. As Jane talks, Eva finds a small pillbox and swallows a pill, then another. Then she spills the pills, and they disappear down the drain.
Jane makes idle chitchat, of the kind she and her husband made in the previous chapter. Viewers can deduce that Eva is trying to kill herself by overdosing on pills (since, if she were merely taking her prescription, as she alluded to in Act One, she’d only take one pill).
Sidney enters the room and sees Eva and Jane. He explains that the Brewster-Wrights have arrived. Seeing that Eva is trying to fish something out of the sink, she tells her, “You’ll never get a sink unblocked that way.” He looks under the cupboard and promises to fix the sink with a wrench. To explain things to Eva, he picks up Eva’s suicide note, glances at it, and then turns it over and draws a diagram of the sink and pipe. Jane smiles and tells Eva, “It’s at times like this you’re glad of your friends, aren’t you?”
Sidney, no less than his wife, is unable to recognize that Eva is suicidal. He’s so obsessed with material things, especially bourgeois household appliances, that he has no understanding of people’s feelings. The passage becomes even more darkly comic when Sidney ignores Eva’s suicide note and writes on the back. Eva’s “friends,” contrary to what Jane suggests, pay almost no attention to her.
Sidney steps out of the room, and Eva finds a piece of rope, climbs up on a chair, and begins to tie the rope around a ceiling light. She tears out the bulb and the fitting, and begins to yawn as a result of taking two sleeping pills. Suddenly, Ronald enters the kitchen, and behind him Lottie Potter’s laughter can be heard. He notices Eva standing on the table, and Jane tells him, “Bulb’s gone.” Ronald offers to fix the bulb for Eva. Meanwhile, Sidney has retrieved a heavy bag of tools, including a wrench, from his car, and begins fixing the pipes.
The farce expands as Eva tries other ways of killing herself, and is foiled again and again. Notice, also, that the characters believe they’re giving Eva valuable help by repairing her kitchen, to the point where they feel they have the right to repair her appliances in the middle of a Christmas party. Appliances, it sometimes seems, are the only things they understand.
Ronald gets up to change the bulb and notices that the fitting has been removed, leaving bare wires. Sidney offers to fix the light, and again writes on the back of Eva’s suicide note to explain what he’s doing. As he writes, Eva “scrawls another suicide note.” Then, she stands on the table again and reaches her hands out to the bare wires on the ceiling. Sidney and Ronald stop her, warning, “They might have been live.”
Ronald doesn’t realize that Eva wants the ceiling wires to be live: he still assumes that she’s just trying to repair her light bulb, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Sidney checks to make sure the light is turned off, and tells Ronald that it’s safe to touch the wires. While Ronald and Sidney perform their respective jobs, Sidney asks what Marion is up to, and Ronald explains that she’s probably in the living-room, talking to the Potters, adding that Marion’s been “on her pins” lately. Ronald praises Sidney for having had a good year, and Sidney admits he’s had some “lucky hunches.”
In this passage, we get a very small amount of information about how the different characters view one another. Sidney, no longer a struggling, pathetic businessman, has had a good year—but readers still don’t fully understand why, or even what Sidney’s job consists of. There’s an interesting contrast between the concrete, literal nature of the characters’ “work” in this scene, and the ambiguity surrounding what the characters “do for work.”
While Jane, Sidney, and Ronald work, Eva writes yet another suicide note, and then finds a tin of paint stripper. She tries to pry open the tin, but can’t. Just then, Marion enters the room and says that something “ghastly” has happened—George has bitten Dick Potter’s leg. Meanwhile, Eva rummages through the bag and finds a screwdriver. Marion asks, “How’s the invalid?” and Ronald replies, “Very groggy.” Marion shrugs and offers everyone a drink. She gives a drink to Eva, just as she’s used the screwdriver to open the tin.
Marion’s exclamation is another good example of dramatic irony: audiences recognize that the real “ghastly” event, Eva’s attempted suicide, is taking place right in the kitchen. Also, notice that George has bitten Dick, even though Dick is supposed to be good with animals. This could symbolize the heightening menace and internal strife of the British middle-class household. Finally, notice that Marion carelessly gives Eva a drink, even though Eva has already overdosed on sleeping pills.
Sidney suggests that the guests play a party game. Just then, Ronald drops a small “thing” that’s a part of the ceiling lights. Sidney crawls around on his hands and knees, trying to find the “thing.” Ronald decides he doesn’t need the “thing”—a nut—after all—he wants a screw instead. Marion puts the light on so make easier to see; just then Ronald, who’s touching the wires in the ceiling, begins to “vibrate” and moan. Marion turns off the light, and Sidney and Jane carry Ronald down. The guests cover Ronald, who seems cold and weak, in “an assortment of laundry, both male and female.”
In each of the three acts, Sidney suggests that the guests play a game (but they only play in Act Three). Ronald’s electrocution is sickening but also darkly hilarious—almost like a gag in an old Charlie Chaplin or Jerry Lewis movie. The pile of male and female clothes has been interpreted as a symbol of the scrambled gender roles of the English middle class, and the emasculation of the middle-class man.
Marion offers Ronald a drink, and Ronald replies, in a strained voice, “I feel very peculiar.” Jane goes to wash her hands in the sink, and when she turns on the sink, water drips down the pipe and onto Sidney, who’s still underneath the sink. Sidney, irritated, tells Marion that she’s ruined a new shirt, and that he’s going to get his overcoat before he freezes. He angrily tells Eva, “That dog of yours is a liability,” and adds, “This is the last time I accept hospitality in this household.”
Notice that Marion’s solution to every problem is to offer someone a drink—this’ll become important, and rather tragic, in Act Three. The slapstick-y tone of the scene builds when Sidney gets doused with a sink-full of dirty water. Again, the characters all complain about comically trivial matters, even as their “friend” Eva contemplates ending her life.
Faintly, Eva begins to sing, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” After each verse, a guest joins in—first Marion, then Jane, then Ronald, then Sidney. In the distance George barks. Suddenly, Geoffrey walks in. He’s astounded by the sound of his guests and his wife singing.
Surprisingly, Eva stops trying to kill herself and takes refuge in a Christmas carol—as do the other characters. And this, curiously enough, is one of the only times in the play when the characters come together to celebrate a Christmas tradition. Perhaps Ayckbourn’s point is that Eva, like the other women in the play, has the ability to escape her sadness and take comfort in little things like music (much as Jane takes comfort in cleaning). Finally, the materialistic aspect of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” makes it the perfect song choice for these crass, materialistic guests.