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The Norman Conquests: Living Together by Alan Ayckbourn

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BBC Radio 7, 19 April 2009
 
As part of the mini-season celebrating Ayckbourn's seventieth birthday, BBC Radio 3 devoted an episode of their nightly arts programme Night Waves to a discussion of Ayckbourn's contemporary reputation. The panellists - including actress Penelope Wilton and Ayckbourn's biographer Paul Allen - concluded that The Norman Conquests (1974) should be treated as a period-piece, a relic of a time when middle-class expectations extended to no more than a dirty weekend in East Grinstead.
 
Gordon House's 1990 revival of the trilogy gave no indication of its original setting in the 1970s; but bearing the panellists' comments in mind, I have to say that Living Together (the second of the three plays) offered an accurate, if somewhat jaundiced, portrayal of middle-class life - a world of surfaces concealing a basic resentment between the members of a suburban family gathering at Annie's (Diane Bull's house) for a weekend. Sarah (Tessa Peake-Jones) desperately tried to maintain control of everyone else; when she felt she was losing that control, she reacted hysterically. Her husband Reg (Simon Jones) tried to interest everyone in his home-made board game, but found little interest. However he made sure that no one could see how disappointed he actually was. Meanwhile Annie remained frustrated by her humdrum existence - having to look after her bed-ridden mother - and by the shortcomings of her supposed boyfriend Tom (John Strickland), who prefaced all his utterances with a lengthy "Ummm ..." as if unwilling - or more likely unable - to commit himself to anything.
 
So far so good. But then there was the eponymous Norman (Robin Herford), an assistant librarian who was not only an agent provocateur, but professed a unique ability to bed any woman he wanted, including Annie, Sarah and his wife Ruth (Lisa Rider). Ayckbourn lets him have his cake and it; despite being a feckless romantic, Norman emerged from all conflicts with little more than an emotional slap on the wrist. He provided a good source of comedy - particularly when he and Annie made fun of Tom's speech - but I was still left with the impression that Ayckbourn gives all the best lines to the male characters, while leaving the women confined to their appointed roles as housewives and mothers.
 
Nonetheless I have to admit that I enjoyed Living Together more than Table Manners (the first play in the trilogy which I reviewed last year). Partly this was due to familiarity: the characters appeared like old friends returning once again to entertain. Yet Living Together also showed Ayckbourn's gift for combining comedy and savagery: we laugh at Tom and Sarah's shortcomings, yet realize that they could lash out at any moment in sheer frustration. It is only their understanding of the importance of appearances in suburban life that prevents them from doing so.

Table Manners by Alan Ayckbourn