The Norman Conquests (Chichester Festival Theatre, until October 28th)
Seeing just one part of Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy The Norman Conquests, splendidly revived at Chichester Festival Theatre as the final offering in a successful summer season, is like eating only one component part of a trifle: the jelly, sponge, cream or custard alone might offer a tasty treat but when put together the experience is a mouth-watering delight.
Although Ayckbourn wrote each play as a standalone piece, the full story only emerges when you see all three. There are several opportunities at Chichester to enjoy the whole trilogy in a day, which is highly recommended; with each part only running for a couple of hours the experience is far from exhausting (it’s a long way from the draining demands of both parts of Angels in America, for instance) and ultimately there’s a real sense of satisfaction in unpeeling all the layers of six characters who you gradually come to care for.
It is the great skill of the writer to tell the story of the lives, loves and disappointments of three siblings and their actual or could-be partners over the course of a weekend from the perspective of three different locations in the same old country Vicarage – Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the sitting room, and Round and Round the Garden takes place outside, with exits in one play becoming entrances in another and almost throwaway lines in one having their pay-offs in an entirely different context later.
Director Blanche McIntyre, fresh from recent triumphs at the RSC, brings an edgy freshness to what could easily be lightweight 1970s farce and she truly makes heroines of the three desperate women looking for love in a lonely world where a dirty weekend could bring life-changing affirmation.
Well-judged performances from Jemima Rooper as hopelessly unattached quirky Annie, Hattie Ladbury as short-sighted and passionate Ruth and Sarah Hadland as the quick-tempered and fussy Sarah help the blossoming from weak and downtrodden to empowered and confident women as the three plays progress. Not only are they liberated from the inadequacies of their menfolk but, you feel, they are also freed from subservience to a demanding mother, who lies sick and unseen elsewhere in the house, and with whom the two sisters and sister-in-law may have more in common than they realise.
Jonathan Broadbent’s Reg is the successful businessman who can’t quite manage his home life – unable to remember the names of his children and more interested in a new board game he has developed than the emotional needs of his wife. Broadbent is so cuddly that his flashes of irritation are all the more shocking; his frustrated description of chess is one of many hilarious highlights in a production that balances its comedy and heartbreak perfectly.
John Hollingworth, currently best-known as Poldark’s engaging friend Henshawe on TV, plays wet vet Tom, a nice-but-dim admirer of Annie’s who misreads most of what is going on around him. Hollingworth takes awkwardness to an exasperating level, never once losing the audience’s sympathy.
As the eponymous Norman, Trystan Gravelle is a beefy Welsh boyo surprised by his success as a lothario, sweeping isolated and unsuspecting women off their feet (he even manages to make East Grinstead sound the most seductive place in Sussex) and winning unwitting men onto his side. “A gigolo trapped in a haystack” he may be but each character and even the audience is quickly seduced by his charm.
There is not as much as a hairline crack in this cast; you sense that they have enjoyed the production process together and have all worked out what makes each of the characters tick to the extent that the audience becomes a group of concerned observers, watching the unravelling lives of familiar friends.
The production is in the round, a bold first for Chichester, which usually makes such imaginative use of its thrust stage and full use is made of it, especially to show off the enthralling dramatic set pieces in each play, from the embarrassing dinner to the romps in the mown grass. Simon Higlett’s beautiful design is wonderfully evocative, a slightly run-down and old-fashioned rustic property which in another setting would be the background to a country house murder, but which here provides the crucible for the unleashing of repressed emotions, where the only blood drawn is from the prickly brambles or an angry cat.
Each play by itself can certainly be appreciated, but it is only when seen together that the full three-dimensional and entirely pleasurable experience can be enjoyed. With the last offering in its main house season, Chichester has achieved a tremendous triple triumph.
Photo, Manuel Harlan
(A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/)