Review: The Norman Conquests (Chichester Festival Theatre)

Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of plays gets a revival in-the-round in Chichester

One of these days, someone will treat Alan Ayckbourn‘s comic trilogy for what it is – a rich, human drama right up there with the best. It’s not that The Norman Conquests isn’t a light, social comedy. It is – there are jokes and foibles and silly misunderstandings aplenty as, over the course of one weekend in the Home Counties, three sets of in-laws tie themselves up in illicit love knots. In the process, however, Ayckbourn shows us six lost souls that have gotten stuck in their set lives, all longing for some sort of escape and all seeking the secret of elusive human happiness. Anton Chekhov, eat your tragicomic little heart out.

Today, unfortunately, is still not that day. Director Blanche McIntyre, keen to keep the hijinks heightened, gives us the usual ragbag of Ayckbournian wonks and cranks – each with their own singular character trait, and each struggling to negotiate the niceties of polite, suburban society. There’s no real pain here, no existential angst; still less the self-awareness or rational thinking of real people. Instead, we get a string of character gags: the highly-strung sister-in-law and her infantile husband, the nice-but-dim suitor with his jaw hanging slack, the short-sighted wife who sees right through her husband. People, of course, are more complex than that. Being half as truthful, it’s half as funny.

The set-up is that after a rumble on the living room rug last Christmas, Annie (Jemima Rooper) has concocted a secret seaside getaway with her brother-in-law Norman (Trystan Gravelle) – a change from waiting for her ponderous friend, local vet Tom, to make a move. With her dullard brother Reg and his busybody wife Sarah housesitting, their plans quickly unravel, leaving the whole family stuck at home for the long weekend, mulling an affair that’s an increasingly open secret, while Norman – the librarian lothario – remains determined to have his dirty weekend one way or another.

The trick is that the three plays show the same weekend from different rooms, so we see a terse dinner party in one, then the argument before it next door in another. Given Ayckbourn’s subject is the mystery of other people’s marriages and, indeed, the allure of clandestine affairs, the form gives him ample room to show what goes on behind closed doors. That shift from public to private is richly theatrical; it lets us see the subtext. The resulting trilogy, seven hours in total, is less box set theatre than one big, satisfying jigsaw. Instead of lining up cliffhangers, Ayckbourn fills in the gaps. He lets us get to know his characters inside-out.

As a bonus, each play finds its own tone. Setting dictates action so that Table Manners, in the dining room (with the cheese biscuits), is full of formalities, while Living Together, on the settees and shagpiles next door, is more relaxed and revelatory – a character piece that finds its own pace. Outside, Round and Round the Garden becomes a wistful, natural Chekhovian drama. It makes perfect sense: space defines our behaviour. Dining tables are, inevitably, antagonistic, while fresh air lets us breathe. It enriches Ayckbourn’s ideas too. House and garden reflect love and marriage; one being a construction on top of the other. Norman might prefer to sow his wild oats, but he’s rather confined by the house rules of his marriage. Not for nothing is the family home itself coming apart – cracks in the ceiling of Simon Higlett’s design – while the garden grows wilder and wilder each year. It’s the mid-Seventies and the couples that came out of the free-spirited Sixties are struggling with the side effects of settling down.

Only we’re invited to see Norman’s behaviour as a bit of saucy slap and tickle, rather than something far more destructive and disturbed. Gravelle, unshaven and puckish, conveys a charming eccentric rather than an unstoppable cad, but, in reality, a man that tries it on with both of his sisters-in-law in succession (and his wife) is nothing but a sex addict, probably morbidly depressed.

Ayckbourn being Ayckbourn, the plays hang together well-enough without such close moral scrutiny. Rooper stretches our sympathies as a trapped homebody Annie, stuck at home caring for her bedridden mother, but snapping at John Hollingworth’s soft-centred Tom. If he misses Tom’s eligibility, mistaking slow-footed kindness for a gentle dimwitted giant, Sarah Hadland shows how an apparently infuriating uptightness can be a mechanism for marital success, bossing Jonathan Broadbent’s infantile Reg into shape. Marital bliss might be a pipe dream, but Ayckbourn makes clear that marriages take many forms.

The Norman Conquests runs at Chichester Festival Theatre until 28 October.