Some scenes are just iconic, aren’t they? Lord Liverpool (who accompanied us on this full-day outing to see all three of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, along with the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor & Mrs Plum) and I both vividly remember watching the 1970s TV version of Table Manners and seeing Tom Conti wax lyrical about the delights of Puffa Puffa Rice. You don’t get that sort of entertainment any more.
At least, not till now, with Blanche McIntyre’s immense new production of this wonderful trilogy gracing the stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a nod to its original layout, they’ve converted the back of the set to take more seating, so that the plays are now performed in the round. Having had a miserable experience with “on stage seating” at the Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III a couple of years ago, I’m a great believer in once bitten twice shy and so we happily occupied the centre of Row C of the regular seating.
In case you don’t know, Annie has arranged that her nice-but-dull brother Reg and his uptight control freak of a wife Sarah will come down for the weekend to look after Mother whilst Annie has a much-deserved weekend away for a rest. So why is her brother-in-law Norman (married to her sister Ruth) lurking in the bushes of their overgrown garden? Is there really an assistant librarian’s convention that weekend? And what about vet Tom, who holds a candle for Annie but is too emotionally reserved to do anything about it? He keeps coming over to check on Annie’s pussy (yes, I know it sounds as though it’s written by Mrs Slocombe, but bear with me). The pussy’s in the tree with a septic paw, and all Tom can do is shout “Pussy!” occasionally. Over the course of the weekend, all is revealed; no one finds happiness but just maybe they might in the future….
Ayckbourn’s trilogy is beautifully structured so that you see the same story over the course of the same weekend in three different areas of the house – the living room, the dining room and the garden. Ayckbourn wrote all three plays concurrently, in chronological order; starting with Act One Scene One of Round and Round the Garden (5.30pm Saturday), then the first scene of Table Manners (6pm) and then the first scene of Living Together (6.30pm). In that way he was able to accompany Norman on his journey of havoc in the same sequence that our eponymous hero does. By the time we reach the final scene of Round and Round the Garden at 9am on Monday, we have a full picture of all the intrigues and misunderstandings that took place the whole weekend. Miss one of the plays out, and you’ll only get half an appreciation of what really went on.
It’s an absolute delight to observe how the three plays interlock. There are overlapping action moments like Reg exiting one room and entering another with a waste paper basket, and Tom exiting and entering bellowing his false and hearty laugh. There are other moments where a character has changed costume for no explicable reason, until you discover the reason why in another of the plays. Ayckbourn also sets up deliberately misleading threads for the audience. There’s more than one occasion where a character reflects that they may have upset someone or said the wrong thing; the audience makes an assumption as to what that might be, only to watch one of the other plays and find themselves proved totally wrong. It’s like a stand-up comedian with a routine full of callbacks that you don’t appreciate until they hit you unexpectedly. Round and Round the Garden contains one scene of misunderstanding between Tom and Ruth that is so blissfully executed and that leads on to further scenes of jaw-droppingly inappropriate behaviour that it’s worth the ticket price for all three shows on its own. If you miss it, then much of what happens later on in the other plays will remain a mystery.
We saw all three plays on the one day, in true theatrefest style. Living Together was on first (11am – such a treat), with Table Manners at the standard matinee time and Round and Round the Garden in the evening. Whatever you do, see the garden play last. Maybe, on reflection, you should see Table Manners first; that way the character of Norman is kept back from you till the last possible moment.
It’s interesting to see how the plays have dated just a little in some respects. Each contains a moment of violence which is played primarily for comic effect; two of those occasions you could describe as “domestic violence”, and each time Norman is the victim. Ayckbourn always did have the knack of making you laugh out loud and then cover your face with shame for laughing. He honed that skill with developing subtlety over the years; but back in 1973 it was a little less sophisticated. At one point, Ruth uses the word “halfwit” as an insult, and it stood out to me as being maybe acceptable for a previous era but not enlightened enough for today. However, the age-old themes of marital (dis)harmony, naughty weekends away and an inability to express one’s feelings are never going to go away; nor is the mention of “East Grinstead” ever going to create anything other than risible scorn, especially to an audience of Sussex-siders.
Simon Higlett’s design preserves a hint of home counties garden at the edges (herbaceous borders I presume) for all three plays, whilst creating homely and slightly drab areas for the living and dining rooms. Would I be a tad picky if I were to suggest a larger dining table might have helped sight lines during Table Manners? From my seat I couldn’t see the visual prankstering between Norman and Tom which forms a considerable part of the comedy of the Act Two Scene One dinner fiasco, because Sarah obstructed my view. Congratulations to Lizzie Frankl’s props department for recreating a Puffa Puffa Rice box, seeing as how they haven’t been sold since 1975.
In best Ayckbournian tradition, the cast make a brilliant ensemble, with no one actor or character standing out as the star; everyone gets his or her own magic moments. Jonathan Broadbent’s Reg reminded me of the Harry Enfield father-in-law character, with his ghastly positivity, nasty driving gloves and endless insistence on everyone playing his wretched game – although, to be fair, I thought it sounded quite fun. I loved his proof that chess is no more realistic than any other game – that was the best mincing diagonal bishop ever. Sarah Hadland’s Sarah couldn’t be more different, with the white knuckled tension she brings to almost every scene. Rattling through her lines with unnerving urgency, she’s brilliant at playing that bitter, thwarted, disappointed housewife, only occasionally allowing herself a moment or two of release – such as at the end of Living Together, when the subject of Bournemouth crops up. Sarah’s grand moment of comedy comes with trying to seat everyone around the dinner table – her middle-class pretensions ruined by a bunch of unruly co-diners who don’t give a stuff about etiquette.
As Annie, Jemima Rooper (a mischievous Elvira to Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati a few years ago) brings a vulnerable charm to the role, nicely blending the tomboy with the coquette as she stuffs her fists into the pockets of her shapelessly comfy old jumper that hides the alluring party frock underneath. Annie runs the gamut of emotions A to, well not quite Z but a long way down the alphabet. Flirtatious, furious, apologetic, tentative, embarrassed; these are just some of the moods that Ms Rooper uses to represent this very put-upon person whose glimmers of hope for the future are slowly being extinguished. As her wannabe suitor Tom, John Hollingworth cuts a perfectly ungainly figure; the occasions where Tom’s inability to understand the rules of a game or get a joke are genuinely hilarious, as you see the cogs turn behind Mr Hollingworth’s eyes but no ratchets engage. The physical comedy of his scene with Ruth, which ends up with them rolling down the side of the garden is just superb, as is his public-school fisticuffs mistaken defence of Annie at the dinner table. You know someone is getting the role right when the audience just affectionately groans when Mr Hollingworth lumbers on to the stage. A fantastic comedy performance.
Hattie Ledbury also gives a brilliant performance as the disdainful Ruth, accepting life with Norman as a game where she constantly loses, only occasionally allowing us to see the embers of their relationship – on the fireside rug, not inappropriately. As vanity (which she denies) doesn’t permit her to wear her glasses, she stumbles myopically on the sidelines of everyone else’s relationships and doesn’t care at all who she hurts. Trystan Gravelle’s Norman is the catalyst for the disastrous weekend; an excellent performance that allows us both to empathise with and loathe him. It’s important for the plays to work that we can believe that Norman is, strangely, irresistible in a certain light – his so-called magnetism that means women just fall for him. I could just about see it, which is perfect; too obvious and he’d just be a dumb Don Juan character. Irritating, patronising, deliberately pushing for a reaction of any sort, yet also oddly fragile, Mr Gravelle gives us a great performance of a character you’d really be better off not knowing.
One slight quibble; I don’t know if anyone has told the cast they’ve got to get through these plays as quickly as possible because people have trains to catch, but I was surprised how much they continued to drive on with speeches after a big laugh, rather than waiting for the laughter to die down a little. Mr Hollingworth was the best at holding back and waiting; I won’t say who was the worst! But we are all there to have fun and a laugh, it only seems fair to give us a chance to get our belly laughs out of the way before they deliver us more Ayckbourn gems.
If you’ve seen The Norman Conquests before – firstly, you don’t look old enough; moreover, you’ll love getting reacquainted with this dysfunctional household of various reprobates. If this is all new to you, you’ve got a wonderful combination of farce and comedy of manners with a 70s twist to look forward to. An early masterpiece by one of our greatest comic playwrights. On until 28th October; it would be great if it were to transfer too.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan