Norman Conquests: An amiable Welsh Sheepdog

The Norman Conquest trilogy can be seen as whole, or in parts. And in any order. The wonderful Chichester Festival Theatre had a number of Trilogy Days allowing all to be seen in a few hours (recommended). They also provided reservations for breakfast, lunch and dinner (also recommended).

This is definitely a comedy of manners, or lack of them, with a tinge of farce. Ayckbourn has taken a weekend family gathering and views it at different times over each day and in different locations in the garden and house.

Norman would like to seduce Annie, his wife Ruth’s sister, and they had arranged a weekend away together which is cancelled when it is discovered by Sarah (married to Reg, Ruth and Annie’s brother). Norman’s also got his eye on a third conquest with Sarah. Tom, from next door, isn’t married to anyone, though he is in love with Annie. Annie may or may not be a little bit in love with Tom.

It could be too clever for its own good but each play in the trilogy needs to stand alone and this production, directed by Blanche McIntyre achieves that nicely. My strong advice though would be to see all three and, if you can, in a single day. (That probably isn’t going to be possible here since the run comes to an end shortly.) You are then in the privileged position of, as the second and third plays arrive, knowing more and more of the completed story which the characters themselves do not yet know. This is like pouring comedy petrol on a smouldering farce. Audience members who just come for the second or third play must wonder at the suppressed laughter which explodes with even greater force from those who are better placed to anticipate the plot lines.

Simple flooring and props over the first play’s garden set allows you to move on to the living room (Living Together) and the dining room (Table Manners) to hear first hand the dialogue that was represented by noises off in the other scenes in the sequence. It must require a good deal of discipline from the actors to remember which part of which play they are in at any given time, and the cast are great. Standout for me was Jemima Rooper as Annie. Having to stay at home to care for the ailing, never seen, mother she seems, nevertheless, more completely at ease with where she is in life than the rest of the family. Even though she has gentle hope that the shambling Tom might one day propose, the fact that he is entirely unaware of how or why he should doesn’t make her a tragic figure.

It is possible, if you screw up your eyes really tight, to see a tragic undercurrent of unrequited love and loneliness in all the characters and believe this to be an essential part of Ayckbourn’s work. I just thought is a was a throughly good romp with Trystan Gravell’s amiable Welsh sheepdog impression as the irrepressible, amoral Lothario cornerstone of the play. Of the plays.

Great day out. My personal view is it’s better to see Round and Round the Garden first if you are seeing all three, since it has the opening lines (chronologically) and the closing lines (chronolocally), but as Ayckbourn said it there is no real order to see them. However, at the end of the three there was a feeling we needed to see the first again to see how it all knitted together. This is why time travel will never really work – after you’ve hopped around a lot there will be an overwhelming urge just to see the single timeline in the right order to make sure it all works.