TABLE Manners is the first part of a trilogy Ayckbourn wrote in the early 70s under the collective title ‘The Norman Conquests’.
All three plays take place over one single weekend in a different part of the same house.
Each play is complete in itself but part of the same story concerning events occurring around a family gathering at their ageing bedridden mother’s house. In particular, it chronicles the lecherous exploits of Norman – the brother-in-law.
All three plays take place in different rooms in the house – ‘Table Manners’ being set in the dining room. The original cast make for a formidable company and included Tom Courtney, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith and Felicity Kendal – huge shoes to fill.
Stuart Snape is a director whose work I admire – he is meticulous in detail and always allows his actors time, pause and space to convey the plot and plotting to the audience, with a generous allowance of thinking time. Setting the play in the round was just perfect and effectively removed the ominous theatrical ‘fourth wall’.
Ayckbourn is renowned for his middle class observation and satire and when this play was first performed nearly 50 years ago, it was indeed ground breaking. Today though it is nostalgically comedic to some of us whilst at its best, historical rather than hysterical to the more youthful.
Lines about larders and homemade carrot wines must be mystifying to anyone born after the millennium.
Even I had to remind myself that back then, when there was nothing in the ‘larder’ for supper, we couldn’t go to the freezer, dial Domino’s pizza or nip down to the 24 hour Tesco Express. I don’t know anyone that makes their own wine anymore but back in the day it was both trendy and revolting – so Snape got that bit right.
The attention to detail on costume was both a joy and an anchor – it explains why the players are saying things in such strange ways – the Tardis has landed.
The family in question consist of two sisters and a brother plus two spouses and a wannabe. Annie, the youngest of the three siblings, is played by Chloe Potter with a chirpy smile and a charming naivety of spirit. Ruth her elder sister is a feisty dragon with coiffured blonde hair and expensive frock- captured to perfection by Paula Snow. Reg, the lazy, slightly misogynistic brother is played by the always-watchable Colin Simmonds, though I did find more than a nod to his recent Professor Henry Higgins putting in an appearance in the characterisation.
Kate Owen goes full on as Reg’s prim and proper wife Sarah with a whole range of expressions from saintly to ice-maiden. Tom Lowde captures despotic Norman- indeed when he is onstage the devil holds court quite joyously.
Ed White gets the short straw as Tom the Vet, Annie’s dim-witted suitor. He gets none of the smart lines but instead is there to set up the others. He does get the best costume though – a fawn corduroy button up jean jacket and matching jeans that rolled back the years, I had one in emerald green.
It is a great credit to the company that they perform so collectively; they are never going to be able to give us ‘inclusive’, even the skills of Snape can’t do that because this is very much a play for then and not now. It’s distanced – and I’m not talking socially.
Still worth a trip down memory lane though.
Table Manners runs until Saturday, November 20. Click here for times, tickets and more information.
Review by Euan Rose.
Euan Rose Reviews.