TAUNTON Thespians’ production of Round and Round the Garden, one segment of Alan Ayckbourn’s ever-popular The Norman Conquests trilogy, is their fourth since their much-trumpeted return to the Brewhouse in November 2014, and the best of the four to date.
With Ayckbourn you sometimes get the feeling that he starts by devising a technical challenge and then sets himself to meet it … “I know, how about three interlocking plays with the same six characters, set over the same weekend in different parts of the same house/garden?” Each play works perfectly well as a stand-alone; prior knowledge of the other two is possibly more of a hindrance than a help as it’s hard not to feel you’re missing something.
The pivotal role is the feckless, utterly amoral and annoyingly charming Norman, and here the Thespians are admirably served by Alan Coles (who seems to spend his whole time on stage getting inebriated and/or seducing younger women) – his drunk scene here is an absolute tour-de-force. Other outstanding performances come from Rob Smith as bumbling vet Tom and Lorna Evans as Norman’s realistic and essentially controlling wife; these two always work well together and their second-act scene is a particular highlight. Brian Lewis, with less of the good lines than some, is as solid as ever as brother Reg, and Nikki Court thoroughly competent if a shade over-mannered as his wife Sarah. Clare Fidler as Annie, new to the Thespians and less experienced than her colleagues, seemed a little out of place on the first night (not least in being obviously a full generation younger than her stage siblings); no doubt she’ll relax into the part more as the week progresses.
Jane Edwards’ direction shows its usual meticulous attention to detail without losing sight of the overall picture, and the set, conceptualised by the director and realised by the ever-reliable David Levi and his team, is superb.
The production is framed by the device of being performed by the fictional Chiswick and Mortlake Players in a reunion after many years. This produces some entertaining programme copy (Thespian programmes are always worth the read), but seems an unnecessary and possibly confusing overcomplication. The aim is presumably to account for the majority of the cast being somewhat older than the parts are written, but this is undercut by the presence of Ms Fidler and one or two uneasy compromises between accommodating the age issue, for example changing “children” to “grandchildren” and attempting to compensate for it. But these are minor quibbles regarding a generally thoroughly satisfactory production.