The Norman Conquests - Chichester Festival Theatre
It’s not the first time I’ve attended a theatre performance that started well before noon – during the 25th anniversary weekend of Les Miserables, both the Queen’s Theatre resident production and a touring production at the Barbican started their Saturday matinee performances at 10:30am. The Saturday evening shows were brought forward to 2:30pm, to allow for a dress rehearsal on Saturday night at The O2 Arena, where high-profile 25th anniversary concerts took place on Sunday, one at 1:30pm and the other at 7:00pm.
The Norman Conquests, to give this trilogy of Alan Ayckbourn plays their collective title, is, in some respects, like an epic version of Noises Off, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments but essentially the same story over and over again. By the time we got to ‘Round and Round The Garden’ in the evening such was the audience’s familiarity with the same six characters, each with their quirks and personal characteristics, that there was a sense of going through the motions. Nonetheless, there was still a lot of laughter to keep us entertained, and with none of the three plays lasting longer than 2 hours 15 minutes (with a 20 minute interval), I may well have arrived at Chichester Festival Theatre just after 9am for breakfast, and not left until 9.40pm, but the day had ample time for rest and relaxation between performances.
Norman (Trystan Gravelle) is married to Ruth (Hattie Ledbury), whilst Reg (Jonathan Broadbent) is married to Sarah (Sarah Hadland). Sarah is sister to Annie (Jemima Rooper), and Tom (John Hollingworth) is Annie’s next door neighbour. Annie looks after an off-stage elderly mother, but has called Sarah and Reg over to her place for the weekend, as she is going away for a couple of days to get some much needed respite. This basic structure thus established, there’s room for all sorts of antics, not least because Norman can’t help but seek satisfaction from other ladies as Ruth simply isn’t enough.
To prevent myself from going on almost as long as the trilogy day does, I limit myself to one highlight per play. ‘Living Together’ sees Reg’s board game invention demonstrate some interesting traits in characters. Quite how nice-but-dim Tom is comes across vividly. ‘Table Manners’ sees snappy Sarah attempt to dictate where people can sit (she fails, hurrah!). Norman makes much fun of Tom sat on a low upholstered chair at the dinner table (there is a shortage of dinner table chairs, apparently due to rot). And in ‘Round and Round the Garden’, it’s all go as the lawn becomes a passionate bed for more than one couple to, well, express their true feelings.
The audience is able to recognise a scene previously seen from another room, for instance: it’s all remarkably clever. This is a glorious and fantastic cast, and while some may take away some deeper thoughts about how the stresses and strains of everyday life can constrain people from fulfilling their ambitions, it is essentially good, clean, light entertainment.