It sounds a feat of endurance but nothing could be further from the truth. It is a sheer delight watching all three parts of Alan Ayckbourn’s sparkling comedy, The Norman Conquests, during a trilogy day at Chichester Festival Theatre today.
The beautiful thing about Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden is that you can actually watch them in any order and on different days and they still work as brilliantly written comedies.
But, taken as a whole, over one day, they are sublimely funny thanks to a dream ensemble and, of course, a timeless and wonderfully contrived plot.
The Norman Conquests were first performed in 1975 and, although director Blanche McIntyre has kept the story in its original time frame, the dialogue between warring couples Norman and Ruth, Reg and Sarah, and Annie and Tom, is as fresh as a daisy.
What does mark this out as a classic comedy is its makeup and design. Everyone is white, middle class and hetrosexual with the action taking place in one of those grand Sussex country homes that has its own tennis court.
And its women are burdened – housewife and mother, Sarah, is neurotic and depressed, teetering on the edge of a breakdown as she attempts to be super efficient; unmarried, lonely Annie has been lumbered with looking after her sick mother; while her sister Ruth must be provider and breadwinner while her incorrigible husband, Norman, gets his three-day (and that’s not fruit and veg).
The men seem to drift through life dodging flak from their other halves and keeping their heads down.
Written today I’m not entirely sure it would work.
But this is manna from heaven for a Chichester audience who know and love Alan Ayckbourn so well that they frequently pre-empted some lines by laughing before the gag was delivered.
Occasionally you find yourself laughing so hard that it is easy to miss the complex and poignant sub-structure of this divine comedy.
There is something terribly sad about the whole group. They are all disillusioned and unhappy with their lives, all feeling unfulfiled.
Reg, Annie and Ruth are siblings. Reg, an estate agent, has learned to dodge his wife, Sarah’s, sharp and frequent tongue-lashings by disappearing to the golf course but that only makes it worse when he returns.
He takes so little interest in his wife and two kids that, on ocassions, he has been known to forget the kids’ names.
Neighbour and vet Tom, is fine with animals but is hopeless with humans. He worships Annie but is completely unable to express himself.
And Ruth’s husband, librarian Norman (the most unlikely looking librarian you’ll ever meet) just wants to make every woman happy. He just can’t stop himself.
Last Christmas, while the family were gathered, Norman seduced Annie on the brown shag pile in the living room.
“It was just wham, thump and there we were on the rug,” she admits. And what happened on the rug?
“Everything happened on the rug,” she says.
So now Norman has arranged a dirty weekend away with Annie…in romantic East Grinstead.
The only problem is that Sarah, who has come with Reg to look after the mother-in-law while Annie has her ‘innocent’ weekend away, has found out about it and spilled the beans.
So, over the course of the weekend, and through three plays, we watch the six bicker and snarl, kiss and make up – over dinner, in the living room and on the garden.
Table Manners is by far the funniest of the plays but the other two each sport standout scenes that will have you laughing your socks off.
The randy Norman, played with relish by Trystan Gravelle, sporting a full beard and a devilish glint in his eye, not only attempts a triple seduction but also wraps his arms around Reg and offers relationship advice to the hapless Tom.
Sarah, who thinks he is contemptible, is the toughest nut to crack but she’s his in a heartbeat when he licks jam off her hand suggestively, his tongue slowly wrapping itself around her fingers.
“I’m a gigolo trapped inside a haystack, ” admits the hirsuit one. Later, when his attraction is questioned, he adds: “I’m just magnetic or something.
“I just want to make everybody happy. It’s my mission in life.”
When his myopic wife, Ruth (Hattie Ladbury), turns up to retrive her wayward husband, she is stoical. She’s had five years of marriage to get used to his little peccadillos. She doesn’t blame Annie at all.
Jonathan Broadbent, in moustache, golfing sweater and thick glasses, is ebullient as the jovial Reg who can’t do anything right in his wife’s disappproving eyes.
Sarah is gloriously played by Sarah Hadland whose disdain and despising of Norman turns into animal lust.
Her voice cuts right through you as she jabbers, accuses and snipes, barking orders and insisting on taking charge of everything.
John Hollingworth, lately of Poldark, here shows what a fine comic actor he is as the gormless, socially awkward Tom.
“I don’t think that he is quite all there,” remarks Sarah.
During the dinner from hell, in Table Manners, he is forced to take a low chair which causes endless gags from the mischievous Norman.
Reg tries to teach him jokes with little success. Even Annie (Jemima Rooper) gets exasperated. “You’re dim, boring, slow-witted and utterly stupid!” She exclaims.
The Norman Conquests are the comedy highlight of the Festival 2017 season and McIntyre has done a grand job with them.
It is the first time that the festival theatre has had seating in-the-round and I’m not entirely sure it works.
I sat where the back of the stage normally is, for the first two shows, and became extremely familiar with the backs of the cast. We also missed out on key gestures and expressions from, particularly, the scheming Norman.
But, overall, this is a fizzing revival that had me laughing from 11am this morning, with Table Manners, until 9pm tonight and the closing play, Round and Round the Garden.
Running in the festival theatre until October 28.
The Norman Conquests
Still hilariously funny. Chichester Festival Theatre triumphs with a sparkling revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests.