The Norman Conquests

Fri 14th – Sat 29th August 2015

reviews

Caspar Jacobs

at 09:53 on 18th Aug 2015

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The dinner table is one of the most everyday locations in life. It is where we do such things as eating, cleaning and, most importantly, encountering family members. It's no surprise then that this setting has consequences for the way the first part of Alan Ayckbourn' trilogy The Norman Conquests, aptly titled Table Manners, turns out. To make it work, the challenge is to transcend the mundanity of that dinner table. Thread Theatre didn't completely succeed in this, giving a funny but at times flat performance.

For most of the play, the characters are busy laying the table, having their breakfast or discussing seating arrangements. The 'serious stuff', Norman's extramarital infidelity (his 'conquests'), is brought up in between the same conversations, becoming part of that boring routine. This results in rather deadpan humour. This works out well sometimes, especially when the snide remarks come unexpectedly, but other times it is bland or obvious.

Perhaps this was because because of the way the characters are played - arguably the show's biggest weakness. All personas were quite one-sided: Sarah (Hayley Everitt) as the hysteric woman trying to control everything, Tom (Sam Lane) as the shy not-quite-husband, Reg (Tommy Murray) being dorky and clumsy and Ruth (Steph Biggs) just quite annoying. Annie and Norman, the main characters, could not be further apart personality-wise. Norman (John Skerritt) is loud and, although supposed to be a smooth womanizer, very unsympathetic. This contrast gave him a little bit of depth which was more interesting to watch.

Annie (Georgie Levers), on the other hand, is almost silent for the whole play. Of course she is supposed to be confused and sad, and on top of that interrupted by family members every other sentence, but that doesn't mean she is not allowed to show that subdued anger and sorrow.

As I mentioned earlier, Monday's performance was the first part of a trilogy of plays. The other parts of The Norman Conquests are set in different locations, the living room and the garden respectively, but revolve around the same plot. This means it might be fun to go see two different parts and recognize bits from the first time the second time around. However, I don't think the quality of the show was high enough to see it another time. Although fun for a while and entertaining throughout, the characters tend to become tiresome and the deadpan humour is at times too formulaic.

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Fergus Morgan

at 12:40 on 18th Aug 2015

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Table Manners, the first part of The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 trilogy of almost-farces, is a play that demands verve and energy to be successful. Portraying the eternally amusing casual philandering of Norman – surely one of British comedy’s finest characters – during one family’s hectic weekend in the country, The Norman Conquests is amongst Ayckbourn’s best work. The script is saturated with his recognisable wit; all the cast have to do is deliver them with vigour and realism and the laughs will assuredly follow.

John Skerritt plays the eponymous knave, a part-time library assistant with a ‘rather aimless sort of beard’, whose failing marriage to Ruth (Steph Biggs) drives him to seek a liaison with Ruth’s sister Annie (Georgie Levers), who is herself stuck in a pitiably stagnant relationship with the meek Tom (Sam Lane). Along for the gloriously row-filled ride are Annie and Annie’s brother Reg (Tommy Murray) and his prim, proper wife Sarah (Hayley Everitt).

Unfortunately, Thread Theatre’s production lacks the essential quality needed to derive the humour from Ayckbourn’s writing. Although every cast member has obviously made attempts at characterisation, their performances are far too insular; there is no observable chemistry between them, no semblance of genuine feeling. There is no urgency to Norman and Annie’s illicit affair, no real anger to Reg and Sarah’s arguments, and no convincing tenderness between Tom and Annie. And so there is no real comedy in the piece.

Individually, there are some passable performances. Georgie Levers’ Annie is appropriately supressed and timid, and Skerrit’s Norman is enjoyably obtuse at times. For the most part, however, the cast are decidedly unimpressive. Characters are wooden, passive, and irritatingly contrived in their physicality.

There are, of course, sporadic flashes of comedy. Indeed, it would be difficult to get through an Ayckbourn play without any laughs, no matter how tepid the production. Norman’s callous bullying of Tom at the dinner table is well-delivered, bordering on hilarity at times, as is Sarah’s frenetic panicking over who will sit where. Murray’s Reg is perhaps the most consistently funny, though; his awkwardness, his tiredness, and his frustration with the weekend’s descent into chaos is both believable and amusing.

Of course, it may be that Thread Theatre’s productions of Living Together and Round And Round The Garden, the second and third parts of Ayckbourn’s trilogy, are substantially better than the first, but it seems unlikely. The same cast playing the same characters must lead inevitably to the same result: a flat, flaccid, uninspiring production of a brilliantly written play.

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