REVIEW: The Norman Conquests

Table Manners

Living Together

Round and Round The Garden.

Chichester Festival Theatre.

PLAYWRITE Alan Ayckbourn is on record as saying it doesn’t matter in what order audiences see his Norman Conquest trilogy.

Chichester Festival has taken the decision to stage them in the perhaps more accepted form on the majority of days – Table, Living, Garden - when all three can be seen by anyone willing to immerse themselves fully in the meltdown that is a family at war with itself.

Certainly, anyone fresh to the saga of Norman and his attempts – with some success it must be noted – to seduce the three women in his extended family gathering, will find Round and Round The Garden a neat tidy-up of all that has gone before.

But just in case, the Festival is also presenting the plays in alternative running order on other occasions.

Each play is in its own right a masterpiece, a self-contained glorious observation of human nature and family rubbing-along. But it is only when the second and then third dramas are added that the full picture emerges, questions are finally answered, nagging doubts put to bed – or the under the hearth rug. And with the addition of each play the laughter grows as the audience, privy now to what is going on elsewhere in the faded Victorian rectory pile, anticipates the coming disaster.

Pity those in the audience then who have not seen an earlier performance – or is that later?

Whatever the best combination truly is, there is no doubting this staging, directed by Blanche McIntyre is a truly wonderful theatre experience.

Trystan Gravelle plays wayward Norman, the would-be lothario who the men adore and so too, it turns out, do the women. Hattie Ladbury is glorious as his accepting wife Ruth, immune it seems to his philandering but not yet to his charms.

Ruth’s sister Annie, played by Jemima Rooper, is hoping someone, possibly Norman, will whisk her away from looking after mother. She would prefer Tom, the ponderous local vet who is taking an enormous interest in her cat, played by John Hollingworth will finally get the message, but that’s a long shot.

And then there’s Reg, played by Jonathan Broadbent, brother to Ruth and Annie, obsessed with his hobby of creating board games and avoiding falling foul of wife Sarah. It’s Sarah, played by Sarah Hadland, who is determined to see off Norman, and yet is she too susceptible to his charms?

The Norman Conquests were written and set in the seventies before an age when social media and easy communication should make such family disasters less entertaining. And yet at its heart this is a trilogy about human reactions and the search for something perhaps always just out of reach – happiness.

The Norman Conquests runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 28 October.

Ian Murray