Alan Ayckbourn is the supreme and sublime observer of middle class life which might explain his enduring appeal as the only seat to be had in the auditorium was next to me as I quite forgot I purchased two sometime ago. Table Manners is part of the Norman Conquest trilogy though oddly you can see the three in any sequence as they are not consecutive in time but overlap.
In this one Norman does not appear for some time. The first thing that strikes you in this excellent production is the set. It’s set in a garden viewable in the round from all angles. Flowers, fake earth and borders separate the table, in which all the crackling dialogue takes place, from the audience. This works well.
The play itself has touches of Abigail’s Party as discord soon sets in as does humorous dialogue. It begins with the visit of a stressed out talkative Sarah (Sarah Hadland) with husband Reg (Jonathan Broadbent) to her sister Annie (Jemima Hooper) who cares for their ageing mother. Another sister Ruth (Hattie Ladbury) is married to Norman (Trystan Gravelle). The cast is completed by a socially maladroit Tom (John Hollingsworth), who is a vet.
The play is laugh out loud funny. Indeed I cannot recall laughing so much at any play especially the dinner scene in Act two . This begins with that middle class protocol of seating the guests, man next to woman. In the absence of Norman this defeats the bossy Sarah who has the males moving from chair to chair. This results in Tom sitting on a much lower armchair to the other diners next to Norman. Neither get on and Tom has to suffer the baiting of Norman over his shorter stance. At one point Reg tells a joke. After the punchline, Norman says to Tom “I expect that went right over your head”.
Ayckbourn, now 86, has written 81 plays but no television or film work though he once cooperated with Alain Resnais. His plays always open at the Scarborough Festival Theatre where he was artistic director for 35 years. He has little interest in the metro luvvie land of theatre. The Norman Conquests were written in the seventies but have lost none of their appeal. I heard one of the audience say “I have seen them so many times but still laugh so much” as it’s a perfect choice for elderly, middle class Chichester where artistic director Daniel Evans is maintaining the fine work of his predecessor Jonathan Kent.
All the cast were strong but Sarah Hadwell stuck out as Sarah with her taut voice and hyper movements appearing to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Norman is a wonderful creation and character. At the end of the play he is well on the way to seducing his last of the sisters, Sarah. Ayckbourn understands an audience. The play is a comfortable two hours long though you can see all the trilogy together in consecutive performances. Originally the impresario Michael Codron thought it would never work as the theatre-goer would find the trilogy too long. As usual Ayckbourn had it right and I can see the Conquests enduring for many more years to come.