We’re accustomed to “event theatre” taking us on long and tumultuous journeys. Lives pass before us. Dynasties rise and fall. Decades roll by.
The Ensemble Theatre’s contribution to the binge-watch trend is a far more intimate and contained affair. British playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s cross-tied trilogy – Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden – collectively known as The Norman Conquests, spans a day and a half and transports us the few steps it would take to walk from the dining room of a dilapidated Sussex house to its garden.
Though Ayckbourn maintains the plays can be seen in any order, Table Manners seems the logical starting point as it sets up all you need to know: desperate for a break from her carer duties, lonely Annie (Matilda Ridgway) is preparing to slip away for an illicit weekend in a seaside hotel with her free-spirit brother-in-law Norman (Yalin Ozucelik).
All that stands in their way are Norman’s acutely short-sighted wife Ruth (Rachel Gordon), Annie’s clueless not-quite-boyfriend Tom (Sam O’Sullivan) and her uptight older sister Sarah (Danielle Carter), who has come home in martyred mood to take over the looking after of their incapacitated mother (who we never meet).
That Annie and Norman’s plans are quickly thwarted is no spoiler. The interest here is in how, and Ayckbourn, in his meticulously arranged epic, gives his audience an access-all-areas pass to an unfolding comic drama fuelled by tentative lust, bubbling frustration and deadly homemade wine.
The Ensemble has a solid recent track record with Ayckbourn (Taking Steps and Relatively Speaking). This Mark Kilmurry-directed production is a cut above, with Ayckbourn’s somewhat heightened portraits coming across as fleshy and fully human. The personal impact of all that soul-sapping niceness and emotional obfuscation is beautifully relayed.
You can’t really love or admire Norman – his rebellious impulses are too selfish and chauvinistic – but the doggily appealing Ozucelik makes sure he catalyses every scene he appears in, even those in which Norman is unconscious.
Ridgway shines quietly as Annie, a woman painfully aware that the few windows for pleasure available to her are closing. Brian Meegan brings impeccable touch and timing to the role of Sarah’s dreary real estate husband Reg.
Taken singly, each play offers two hours of piquant English comedy. Watched in this order in a six-hour binge (with 90 minutes or so between each play), however, The Norman Conquests seems considerably greater than the sum of its parts.