Just for a change I have decided to do something different with this blog. Can’t face Table Manners, the Rep’s latest offering, with my usual shafts of coruscating critical wit and dripping pearls of exquisite wisdom. Or whatever rubbish I normally post that passes for theatrical comment and opinion. Wouldn’t be fair. Not because I know this play so well, I know so many plays well. Have two Pinters, one Ibsen, and Collins pocket dictionaries of Shakespeare and Aphra Benn on my library shelves. Oh all right, I made the last one up. But I am not making up my reluctance to review John O’Leary’s commendable production of the dining room slant on Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquest Trilogy. Have only recently directed this one myself and, very soon, will be moving on to the next one, Living Together, which unsurprisingly takes place in the living room. The third in the trilogy is called Round and Round the Garden and I shall shortly be releasing my first theatre blog competition with a prize for the first entrant who successfully guesses where this takes place. All three plays, cleverly mixed, are over the same fraught family weekend and in Table Manners we see the action in the dining room.
Knowing every line and every move, almost by heart, it is inevitable that one makes comparisons. Doubly so in my case as the original 1977 Thames Television production, a stellar cast including Penelope Keith and Richard Briers, is also indelibly printed on my mind. They did such things on TV in those days, but don’t get me started on that. But I brought so much baggage with me into the Rep’s splendid Little Theatre with this one it is a wonder that there was room for anyone else. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and Mr O’Learys excellent cast hardly hit a false note, but I ain’t going to review it. One needs to distance oneself from the stage and the actors for that. Entertain me, engage me, draw me in, surprise me, you say. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But at least they, initially, hold all the theatrical cards. With Table Manners I was up there with them, anticipating every move, every line, every subtle nuance. So no review which, seeing as this is a blogging review site, leaves me in a pickle. Perhaps I should talk about horses and what may, or may not, win the Newmarket Cesarewitch.
I did have the splendid idea, well it seemed splendid at the time, of having an imaginary discussion with director John O’Leary on the various characters in Ayckbourn’s East Grinstead shenanigans. But as that wandered into the respective merits of the legs of his Sarah (Jenny MacDonald) and the famous Penelope Keith I wisely decided it was best abandoned. Legs apart, if you know what I mean, I thought Miss MacDonald did a super job. She was very feisty as bossy snob sister-in-law Sarah, her of civilised dinner parties and tantrums, and the guilty way she envisaged sexual trysts was spot on. She made a nice foil for the laidback persona of husband Reg (lovely portrayal from Matt Flitton, rich with the dirtiest laugh in Dunstable) and you seriously questioned how this ill matched pair ever got together. But that applies to all in The Norman Conquests. Reg’s sister Annie, homely and suffering, is stuck with hapless and dull vet Tom and dysfunctional librarian Norman, the bringer of emotional chaos to all he touches, is married to the insufferably upwardly mobile Ruth. A cow of any description. How they all cope with Norman’s intended conquest of Annie is what passes for a weekend plot. But that matters little in Ayckbourn. It is all about how his richly drawn characters react, both to each other and the situation.
Mr O’Leary’s interpretation had a gentle and subtle feel to it; commendably neither he nor his actors were intent on any unseemly manic rushing. If the chaotic third scene dinner party lost a little impetus as a result, this was my only regret. Elsewhere nuances were well fleshed out by all. Kate Johnson etched a pleasant and helpless Annie, lacking only in projection of her nicely observed character, and Anthony Bird was a keenly crafted Tom. I like this actor, he is rich in variety of tone and subtlety, and never more than when he delivered an aggressive threat to Norman. Pigeon arms akimbo, or something like that, his expelling air spoke volumes for its difficulty. Sometimes you don’t need words, just an actor clever enough to flesh out the nuances. This Tom was miles out of his emotional depth and in that one instance he encapsulated it. And in Norman’s wife Ruth, sister of Reg and Annie, Liz Harvey gave us that cow of consummate depth and artistry. She gave the dinner party scene considerable venomous zest and it was a joy to see this accomplished actress back on the Dunstable stage. And what of Norman, lumbering dysfunctional and engaging Norman, creator of emotional chaos and priapismic longings. In this interpretation he didn’t so much seize the moments as gently wrap them in his shambling likeable persona. I rather took to him, he both flagged and underlined Mr O’Leary’s concept of the piece, and left the theatre thinking that Alex Brewer had given his best performance yet for the Rep.
So a pretty gentle and pleasant evening, nicely staged and nicely lit, of a very familiar piece. It could have been turgid for me. That it wasn’t owes much to Mr O’Leary’s intelligent direction and his highly skilled cast. But, as I said, I ain’t going to review it. I shall leave that to others. Roy Hall