WHY do women fall for Norman? In the original stage and television productions, Alan Ayckbourn’s bumbling Casanova was played, first, by Tom Courtenay, and on screen by Tom Conti, two actors possessed of such charisma that we would probably go weak at the knees if they read a paint chart aloud.
There is a huge challenge for the actor at the heart of the Norman Conquests – you have to believe that if you, a woman of any age, found yourself in a room alone with him, and he poured out his empathetic message of understanding and promises of giving you “a good time,” you would melt and find yourself agreeing (with increasing anticipation) to a weekend in Bournemouth or Hastings or even East Grinstead.
The clever trilogy of Living Together, Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden, is set contemporaneously in two rooms and the garden, over one chaotic weekend, in the family home of stay-at-home Annie, caring for the cantankerous old mother, sharp-tongued business-woman Ruth, the older sister (and Norman’s wife) and easy-going estate agent Reg.
The other characters in these beautifully observed and achingly funny plays are Norman, Reg’s bustling, put-upon, self-pitying, household tasks-obsessed wife Sarah, and Tom, the local vet, assumed by the rest of the family to be Annie’s almost-fiance, but so emotionally stunted that he may never actually say the words.
APS director, stage manager and designer John Crabtree is blessed for this hilarious production of Table Manners with a Norman who inhabits the role. Cameron Thrower (who impressed so much as the working class Lt Billy Prior in Swan Theatre’s Regeneration last year) makes Norman credible, attractive, infuriating – and you can’t take your eyes off him. You know that he is an amoral liar, but he is so self-deluding that he is endearing.
You can see why poor frustrated Annie (a lovely sympathetic performance from Jane Pitts) agreed to that weekend in Hastings; You understand why control-freak Sarah (Bev Taylor-Wade finding the humanity under the fixed coiffure and table etiquette) slowly melts into his embrace. And you realise that sarcastic angry Ruth (Rachael Alexander, crisply embodying the wittiest but nastiest character), actually loves him and probably can’t live without him.
Richard Culham gives an unexpected warmth to Reg, a character who is often played as lazy and sleazy. And Roger Chadbourne gets right inside the emotional repression of the hopeless Tom, flapping his arms constantly and never quite making eye-contact. The scene when he attempts to “box” with Norman is so funny that you ache with laughter. His little balled fists flailing in the air reminded me of nothing so much as one of those toy Japanese waving cats.
It’s a terrific production, with a good set and all-round convincing performances. I would love to see this cast take on the other parts of the Norman Conquest trilogy.