Living Together by Alan Ayckbourn, adapted by Peter Kavanagh

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Living Together by Alan Ayckbourn, adapted by Peter Kavanagh. Dir. Kavanagh. Perf. Julian Rhind-Tutt, Helen Baxendale, Nigel Planer. BBC Radio 4, 14 Mar. 2015. BBC iPlayer to 13 Apr. 2015.

Set firmly and squarely in the Seventies, "Living Together" is the first in "The Norman Conquests" trilogy that achieved a long run in the West End, transferred to television and was revived in a BBC World Service production starring Robin Herford that crops up from time to time on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

The trilogy could best be described as a series of variations on a theme - a weekend from hell in which a family gathers together, continually bickers with one another, indulges in occasional philandering and goes home vowing to meet again, as infrequently as possible. The agent provocateur for the series of shenanigans is Norman (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who cannot keep his hands off any female. Trapped in a boring job as a librarian, this is his sole outlet. The other characters are types – the bluff boorish oaf Reg (Jeff Rawle), the nice-but-dim Tom (Nigel Planer), the domestic type Annie, saddled with looking after her mother (Helen Baxendale), the bossy Sarah (Clare Lawrence-Moody), and the malcontented Ruth (Tracy-Ann Oberman). To anyone who grew up in the Seventies, they are all highly familiar, redolent of a world in which gender divisions were firmly fixed: the women stayed at home and looked after the house, while the nine-to-fiver men acted as breadwinners and expected to be waited on hand and foot when the working day had finished.

Peter Kavanagh's production unfolded at a cracking pace, giving all the characters an opportunity to shine. I especially liked Planer's Tom - a fundamentally good-hearted personality trying his utmost to make the best of a dire situation, in spite of the insults hurled at him by everyone else. Rawle's Reg came across as rather a desperate man, trying and failing to interest everyone in his highly complicated board game.

Yet as the action unfolded, I actually got a strong sense that Ayckbourn doesn't really like his characters, even though he gives them plenty of funny lines to say. He despises their narrow world-view, circumscribed by work, domesticity and the need to score verbal points off one another. Rhind-Tutt's Norman was a charming person, to be sure; but why should he spend his entire weekend wanting to get off with all the women, especially Annie? Ayckbourn offers little or no explanation, other than suggesting that sex provides his only leisure outlet.

"Living Together" is very much a period-piece, especially in its casual attitudes towards sex, marriage and fidelity. While the characters are still recognizable today, the social constructions of gender have shifted irrevocably. One should be grateful for small mercies.