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The Norman Conquests (Susan Elkin reviews)

Table Manners, Living Together, Round and Round the Garden

Jonathan Broadbent leaps around the stage demonstrating that chess isn’t a sensible game because in real life horses don’t jump sideways and bishops don’t have a funny walk. Trystan Gravelle meanwhile rolls off a sofa in slow motion, with real comic precison, during someone else’s argument. None of the characters on stage has a sense of humour. Everyone takes his or herself very seriously. Welcome to 1970s Ayckbourn country – as funny and well observed as ever. And his dialogue is so impeccably well written that it simply dances into the hands and mouths of the actors. People run in and out getting stressed, misunderstanding each other and sex is never far from the surface.

The real strength of The Norman Conquests, though, is that it’s a trilogy for six actors with each of the three plays presenting the action in a country house where they’ve gathered as at a weekend to care for a hypochondriac mother/mother-in-law and to spar or flirt with each other. The action occurs at different times in each play so that the three sit one on top of the other like a Picasso Cubist painting – thus providing lots of scope for situational comedy laden with dramatic irony. And sometimes a pregnant silence is funniest of all. Ayckbourn has always insisted that the three plays are performed together as an integral tryptich rather than as three stand alone plays which might or might not be grouped together. At Chichester you can see them all three on one day in an Ayckbourn marathon – as the press did – or you can catch them on different days. They probably don’t need to be seen in any particular order

Director Blanche McIntyre has allowed, or guided her cast, to find every laugh and make the humour beam through. The pacing and comic timing is impeccable as, for example, Jemima Rooper as earnest, put upon Annie realises that she’s just been the victim of yet another verbal assault or John Hollingworth as her amiable boyfriend Tom bumbles and fumbles jovially for the right thing to say. To work well, Ayckbourn has to be very slick with the cast playing skilfully and energetically off each other and that’s certainly what, for the most part, happens here. For instance, we watch Gravelle as Norman and Hattie Ladbury as Ruth his wife curl up in the hearthrug for reconciliatory sex and enjoy Broadbent’s reaction as Reg when he finds them there in the morning. There’s nothing remotely relaxing about this long house party as Ayckbourn gradually unfolds the dynamic between them.

And it’s all played out on Simon Higlett’s busy domestic set with Chichester Festival Theatre configured so that it really is in the round with around 100 extra tiered seats behind the playing space to complete the 360 degrees. The trouble with that arrangement is that actors have to work extra hard with audibility and Hattie Ladbury over compensates by shouting. On the other hand the intimate immersiveness it creates is welcome, especially, when – for example – Sarah Hadland (good) as Sarah fusses around unpacking cases at the beginning of Living Together.

I don’t suppose Ayckbourn want’s to be called a national treasure but if the cap fits …. The Norman Conquests is well worth a trip to Chichester.

 First published by Sardines:,%20Living%20Together,%20Round%20and%20Round%20the%20Garden&reviewsID=2990
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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