The Norman Conquests: Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden

Alan Ayckbourn
Birmingham Rep
(2004)

Most of Alan Ayckbourn's early plays followed the same blueprint: a cast of six who used two entrances. That was because six was the maximum number he could employ at his Scarborough Theatre-in-the-Round and the venue's physical limitations dictated how the actors came on and off the stage.

In those early days he tended to write light, almost superficial material which would fill the theatre in the Yorkshire seaside resort. His characters, usually middle-class, would suffer social problems which they were unable to change or resolve without a great deal of heartache. There is humour bordering on farce in those situations as comedy usually overcomes tragedy. It was only later that Ayckbourn turned to darker themes.

Yet there's no way you can say about Ayckbourn's early plays that once you've seen one you've seen them all. Take his trilogy The Norman Conquests, for instance. The three plays, when seen individually, give you a self-contained perception of the tangled lives of three couples who rarely spend time with one another. But when you see the plays in succession, you get a far greater insight into the characters and you also appreciate Ayckbourn's brilliance.

Birmingham Rep is currently putting on all three in rotation, with certain days set aside for theatregoers to watch them one after the other.

The trilogy is set in a run-down Victorian country house and covers a weekend from late Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. One is set in the dining room, the second in the living room and the third in the garden.

Table Manners kicks everything off and is arguably the funniest. Sarah and Reg turn up at the house to look after his ageing mother, allowing his sister Annie to take a much-needed holiday. But it soon becomes apparent that Annie is not going away with her neighbour, wet vet Tom, but Norman - her wacky brother-in-law who plans to take her away for a dirty weekend in East Grinstead!

Caroline Faber is impressive as the sexually frustrated Annie, always trying to do right by her domineering mother who remains out of sight upstairs. Annie changes moods rapidly and is unable to control her temper whenever anything goes wrong.

She is totally different from her sister-in-law Sarah, superbly played by Leda Hodgson as an upper-class, neurotic prude who gradually works herself into a rage. In the end she succumbs to Norman's charms, just as Annie does.

Paul Raffield is accomplished as the annoyingly boring estate agent Reg who is content to be treated like a doormat and likes to be told what to do.

Tom the vet prefers animals to people because he's unable to form a proper relationship with anyone, particularly women. Tony Boncza is especially convincing as the ponderous, gentlemanly suitor who fails to understand how Annie feels about him even when other people spell it out.

Norman, the central character, gets a huge build-up with everyone talking about him yet we don't see him until act two. Surprisingly he isn't an irresistible Adonis. Michael Begley is perfect for the role, a hirsute non-conformist who almost looks like Shaggy out of Scooby Doo and comes over as the irresponsible teenager who never grew up.

Katharine Rogers is confident and competent as his wife Ruth, seemingly the only level-headed member of the family. She appears cold and detached from the madness yet she is just as vulnerable as the rest and uses Norman as her emotional punchball.

In Living Together Tom ceases to be a doormat and fights back. Round and Round the Garden shows us another side to Norman as he reveals he wants to seduce every woman he ever comes across, not only the women in his family.

The only criticism is that Norman appears to sober up far too quickly when he is put outside in Round and Round the Garden. In one of the earlier plays he is paralytic after drinking mother's home-made wine.

Jonathan Church who previously directed The Norman Conquests in Salisbury presents a slick show which doesn't drag even when you're approaching the end of the third play.

A huge accolade too for designer Simon Higlett. His revolving set superbly encapsulates the different rooms inside the house as well as making the exterior, with its missing roof slates and leaning rotary clothes line, tremendously atmospheric.

Viewed separately, the plays contain strange scenes which appear to be included for no particular reason. In Living Together, for instance, Reg picks up a waste paper basket in one of the rooms and walks out with it. The reason for it is explained in Table Manners. It's only when you see all three plays that everything falls into place and you can truly appreciate how Ayckbourn pays attention to detail.

The man's a genius. All credit to the Rep for staging the trilogy. It's worth £51 of anyone's money.

"The Norman Conquests" runs until May 22nd, with all three plays being performed on May 15th and 22nd

Steve Orme