This review was originally written for EdFringeReview.com
Table Manners, the first part of The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1973 trilogy of almost-farces, is a play that demands verve and energy to be successful. Portraying the eternally amusing casual philandering of Norman – surely one of British comedy’s finest characters – during one family’s hectic weekend in the country, The Norman Conquests is amongst Ayckbourn’s best work. The script is saturated with his recognisable wit; all the cast have to do is deliver them with vigour and realism and the laughs will assuredly follow.
John Skerritt plays the eponymous knave, a part-time library assistant with a ‘rather aimless sort of beard’, whose failing marriage to Ruth (Steph Biggs) drives him to seek a liaison with Ruth’s sister Annie (Georgie Levers), who is herself stuck in a pitiably stagnant relationship with the meek Tom (Sam Lane). Along for the gloriously row-filled ride are Annie and Annie’s brother Reg (Tommy Murray) and his prim, proper wife Sarah (Hayley Everitt).
Unfortunately, Thread Theatre’s production lacks the essential quality needed to derive the humour from Ayckbourn’s writing. Although every cast member has obviously made attempts at characterisation, their performances are far too insular; there is no observable chemistry between them, no semblance of genuine feeling. There is no urgency to Norman and Annie’s illicit affair, no real anger to Reg and Sarah’s arguments, and no convincing tenderness between Tom and Annie. And so there is no real comedy in the piece.
Individually, there are some passable performances. Levers’ Annie is appropriately supressed and timid, and Skerrit’s Norman is enjoyably obtuse at times. For the most part, however, the cast are decidedly unimpressive. Characters are wooden, passive, and irritatingly contrived in their physicality.
There are, of course, sporadic flashes of comedy. Indeed, it would be difficult to get through an Ayckbourn play without any laughs, no matter how tepid the production. Norman’s callous bullying of Tom at the dinner table is well-delivered, bordering on hilarity at times, as is Sarah’s frenetic panicking over who will sit where. Murray’s Reg is perhaps the most consistently funny, though; his awkwardness, his tiredness, and his frustration with the weekend’s descent into chaos is both believable and amusing.
Of course, it may be that Thread Theatre’s productions of Living Together and Round And Round The Garden, the second and third parts of Ayckbourn’s trilogy, are substantially better than the first, but it seems unlikely. The same cast playing the same characters must lead inevitably to the same result: a flat, flaccid, uninspiring production of a brilliantly written play.