Alan Ayckbourn enjoyed an unrivalled reputation
during the 1970s and 80s. Several of his plays ran successfully in London’s West End – frequently simultaneously
– and he was featured regularly on television and radio. More recently he has become less prolific, but still his plays
might be considered safe bets for anyone interested in putting them on the professional or amateur stage.
Whether his plays are any good is a different
matter. As I listened to Gordon House’s revival of Table Manners, I became
more and more aware of the fact that his characters are deeply unpleasant, imprisoned by their obsessions and completely oblivious
to others. The eponymous central character Norman (Robin Herford) is a serial philanderer who takes pleasure in seducing women
and remains indifferent to his wife Ruth. His sister-in-law Sarah (Tessa Peake-Jones) organizes other people to compensate
for her monotonous life in the family home. Ayckbourn’s conception of gender roles remains deeply conservative: women
exist to clean, make meals and serve their male partners, while men spend their time complaining about their apparent neglect. Perhaps The Norman Conquests should be
approached as a period piece, rather like The Good Life on television - the product
of a period in British history when feminism had made little impact on the popular consciousness (especially men), and it
was still thought funny to write about suburban life.