Alan Ayckbourn, considered a classic notable of English playwriting, has seen a number of revivals throughout the last decade from the Fringe to the National Theatre. However, this particular production by young theatre and film company Duelling Productions stands out unmatched in its injection of a new energy and incredible vigour into Ayckbourn’s writing.
The trilogy of plays – Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden, published collectively as The Norman Conquests – are a cleverly interwoven tale of family dramas and affairs, exploring the trials and tribulations of settled life and the anxieties of middle age. All three plays are performable individually but can also be performed in tandem, each taking place in a single setting at the family home, with the exits of one play leading the characters to their entrances into the next. Ingeniously written, this is one of Ayckbourn’s best and, while not easy to perform, Duelling Productions excels in doing the celebrated writer great justice.
Seeing two of the three plays (Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden) performed in succession in one evening gives a great sensation that is rare in more traditional theatre. The unravelling of the story and the ability to then see what is happening behind the action lets the audience in on the joke. And what a joke it is to be in on. It is refreshing to allow an audience to connect the dots themselves in this way.
While The Norman Conquests are a great example of comedic theatre done right, what really shines through here is the pinpointed comic timing of the ensemble, bringing out every single nuance of the script while never straining for laughs. Norman, around whom all calamity seems to centre, is performed by Simon Dean with a perfect mix of sleaze, sincerity and silliness that makes him unexpectedly endearing. While taking some time to warm to him, he someone manages to get the audience on his side, even though they know that it might really be the wrong one.
The comedy arising from the incredible tensions between the two sisters and sister-in-law of the family – Annie, Ruth and Sarah, played by Lucy Hirst, Hannah Lawrence and Katherine Stevens – is wonderful. The atmosphere, which not even a knife could cut, is palpably tense at times; the relief and comedy of the release from this is hysterical. The three performers play off each other throughout the show, making for an incredible window into the back-chatting bedrock of a middle-aged, middle-class society who constantly have to try to be happy, but never quite get there.
Phillipe Edwards gives a great turn as the well-meaning but undeniably simple Tom, with every entrance and exit a masterclass in awkward exchanges. The relationships that develop, and the sympathy – and often pity – elicited from the audience in this character alone are a testament to Edwards’s talent. Reg, the ever-suffering husband of Sarah, is played by the incredibly watchable Tom Myles. Every action, every line and every single sentiment delivered by Myles hits the mark, with the heavy comedic role of his character never letting up, making his more tender moments even more affecting.
Jamie Manton and Jessica Burrage’s direction is simple yet perfectly observed. The intimacy of the production really allows the audience to get under the skin of the characters and their constant dilemmas and hilarious trials. Wonderfully stylised scene changes hint at the other plays in the trilogy, creating an incredibly satisfying theatrical jigsaw for the viewers to piece together. This is fringe theatre at its undeniable best, and the work of the ensemble sparking off each other at every twist and turn makes for an electrifying and relentlessly hilarious production.
The Norman Conquests played from 7-9 August as part of the Camden Fringe. For more information, visit the Camden Fringe website.