Round and Round the Garden by Alan Ayckbourn, adapted by Peter Kavanagh

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Round and Round the Garden by Alan Ayckbourn, adapted by Peter Kavanagh. Dir. Kavanagh. Perf. Julian Rhind-Tutt, Helen Baxendale, Nigel Planer. BBC Radio 4, 28 Mar. 2015. BBCiPlayer

Listening to this final part of The Norman Conquests trilogy, I was struck by the sheer sweatiness of Peter Kavanagh's production. It opened with Norman (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Annie (Helen Baxendale) locked in a passionate embrace; further couplings included Norman and Sarah (Clare Lawrence-Moody), Norman and Annie (for the second time), and Norman and Reg (Jeff Rawle). The heavy breathing on the soundtrack suggested passion; the dialogue suggested otherwise, almost as if the characters were indulging in a few desperate (and snatched) moments of physical contact as an alternative to talk. When Norman and Reg embraced, Norman was blind drunk; there was no homosexual intention behind it. Nonetheless we still got the feeling that Norman wanted to be with someone, somewhere. At the end of the production he plaintively exclaimed that he only wanted to make people happy; but happiness was a rare commodity in this production.

The title of this play "Round and Round the Garden" had symbolic importance, as it suggested a world whose characters were like rodents running round and round on a wheel, unable to get off. No one, it seemed, could escape from Annie's house, despite their readiness to do so: Reg's car crashed into Norman's, forcing both of them and their spouses to spend another night in the house from hell. Kavanagh's production had strong links to an Absurd Drama, despite its comic moments, with the characters deprived of self-determination.

Over the years I've written regularly about Ayckbourn's propensity to create plays located in a small suburban world, whose characters seldom find happiness. What this production revealed - perhaps for the first time - is the way they try to find solace, despite their limitations. Tom (Nigel Planer) is both verbally and emotionally stunted, but such shortcomings do not prevent him from pursuing Annie, even though she keeps him at arm's length. Annie has not got much to look forward to, but she maintains sufficient self-respect to repel Norman. Sarah's life does not extend beyond home and family, but she remains proud of her ability to manage domestic affairs. Norman is a rogue, but a lovable rogue with few evil intentions; like a child, he just wants to see how far he can go before his relatives lose patience with him.

I thoroughly enjoyed this production, perhaps more so than any other Ayckbourn revival, I laughed out loud, chiefly because the characters seemed so attractive in their social imprisonment.