I’ve recently had the opportunity to read and appreciate Alan Ayckbourn's inventive and comic trilogy of plays, "The Norman Conquests", comprising “Table Manners”, “Living Together” and “Round and Round the Garden”. All can be read separately; together, however, they take on added nuance and meaning, given one shows us what happens in the dining room over the space of the weekend, whereas the others provide an account of the events within the sitting-room and the garden, respectively. From what I’ve read, Ayckbourn seems to have envisaged this affording the audience the opportunity to see a trilogy of plays which present all “four walls” of a setting – something he notes that audiences themselves are often required to function as.
The plays concern themselves with six main (and only) characters who gather together on a weekend in July at a country house. The house itself belongs to an unseen but tyrannical invalid whose unmarried daughter, Annie, cares for her. On the Saturday evening when the plays start, Annie’s brother, Reg, and his wife Sarah have just arrived to take over nursing duties from her so that she can have a break and go away for the weekend. Reg gives this little thought. Sarah, however, assumes the weekend will afford Annie an opportunity to go away with the local vet, Tom, who has been making regular visits to see Annie without actually ever getting around to courting her. In fact, Annie has made arrangements to go away to sample the delights of the less than sultry East Grinstead with Norman, an assistant librarian with “a rather aimless sort of beard”, who is prepared to court anyone, given half an opportunity and who also happens to be married to her sister, Ruth…
Despite being written in the Seventies, the plays remain fresh and the humour intact. The chief delight, however, stems from Ayckbourn’s deft characterisation throughout. Not only do Reg, Annie and Ruth provide a realistic portrayal of familial relationships when forced into close proximity with one another and the spats which are prone to occur with their respective partners (Reg has food thrown at him by Sarah in “Table Manners”), we also see the layers to each during the course of the two days they spend in one another’s company. Whilst Annie is initially portrayed as somewhat of a doormat, having taken on a significant degree of responsbility for her mother, this is not the full story. She is both capable of arranging a weekend away with Norman and standing up to Sarah when necessary. Sarah struggles to maintain her sense of order and control in the face of emotional turmoil. Ruth is revealed to appreciate the unconventional nature of her relationship with Norman, in a “chalk and cheese” form of attraction.
In the midst of matters, Norman acts as a sort of wrecking ball, creating chaos wherever he lands. Bereft of his opportunity to whisk Annie away for the weekend by a disapproving Sarah, he proceeds to wreak havoc. Interestingly, however, he does this on a number of occasions at the instigation of others. Annie is keen to be whisked off her feet by someone and experience some excitement, whilst Sarah has been starved of attention. Tom actively seeks his advise as someone he considers wise in the ways of the world, something he himself cannot pretend to be. For this reason and given his portrayal as somewhat of a lovable rogue, it is hard to dislike the character. He displays charm in his interactions with the others, despite the manner in which his affections waver between them. As such, Ruth’s description of him as an “oversized unmanageable dog” who is prone to “jump up” at those who encourage him is accurate. Ultimately, this is something the women he approaches come to appreciate via personal experience by the conclusion of the plays, leaving them disillusioned and dismissive. This leaves the audience to ponder whether and, if so, to what extent this reaction will lead to any change in Norman, who, in his own words, “only” sought to make them “happy”.