ALAN Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests have been among his most popular plays since the trilogy was first performed back in 1973 with Tom Courtenay as Norman. I have loved the three plays – Living Together, Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden – ever since I heard that legendary production on the radio. Courtenay, with his wonderful blend of diffidence and clumsiness, cockiness and charm, was quite irresistible.
But they are plays that also divide opinion, particularly among women– because not everybody can see why Norman is such a magnet for women. He is, after all, a serial adulterer, a man with whom no woman under (possibly) 80 is safe, a disorganised, well-meaning, tactless, impractical idiot. So the success of any production of any part of the trilogy depends on the audience believing that Norman is a man to whom women really can’t say no. He doesn’t have to be a looker, you just have to know that he has that special ability to make women feel good about themselves and only too willing to tumble onto the rug with him.
Each of the three plays involves the same six characters – Norman and his wife Ruth, her sister Annie, their brother Reg, his wife Sarah, and Tom the vet. They are set over the same weekend – when Norman had been planning to take Annie for a weekend of sinful delight at East Grinstead (think about it! Don’t you know that’s a doomed idea, from the start!)
Churchill Productions staged Living Together, set in the living room of the house where unmarried Annie looks after difficult mother, who has taken to her bed, no longer having any men flapping around her. One after the other the family members arrive, Norman and Annie’s naughty weekend is nipped in the bud and the scene is set for a lot of family truths, some heartache, many, many laughs and a fair amount of rolling on that rug.
Given that I love and know these plays, it’s great to report that Churchill’s production, directed by the experienced Pete Talman, fully lives up to expectations, with first-class performances from all six actors, and a hilariously credible Norman from Andy Oldfield, with his clumsy movements, his messed-up, sticky-out hair and his rueful, charming smile.
The three women are clearly differentiated – Sammy Boyle as Sarah, organising and bossy (but secretly desperately wanting to feel attractive to someone other than her ineffectual husband), Jan Wyld as cool and sophisticated Ruth, who can still be reduced to a wobble on the rug by a mere whisper from Norman, and Anna Brown as stay-at-home Annie, who is much the nicest of the trio, and who perhaps will have more fun if she can ever break through Tom’s thicket of nervous reserve.
Churchill regular Graham Haigh made Reg both endearing and infuriating in equal measure. You can’t blame Sarah wanting to throw those blessed games away! And Justin Ellery as Tom hits just the right note as a man who is more comfortable with a cat up a tree than a woman to whom he is obviously attracted but is unable to say anything coherent.
Sometimes Ayckbourn is cruel to his characters, depicting their social and emotional incompetence in ways that may be realistic but are often uncomfortable. We either feel we shouldn’t laugh at their misfortunes or we dislike them so much we revel in their misery. Neither is the case with these characters – we guess that Ruth will continue to put up with Norman’s infidelities because she so obviously needs him, we know that Sarah and Reg will still rub along together and we suspect that Annie will finally sort Tom out.
It is a tribute to Talman’s beautifully paced direction and the actors’ skills that we do laugh merrily at the characters’ often ridiculous behaviour but we also hope that things will work out in the end.