Review: The Norman Conquests, Chichester Festival Theatre

“I’ve learned though bitter experience that the last thing to do with Norman is take him seriously. That’s exactly what he wants.”

What to do with theatre vouchers? Trying to find the kind of theatrical experience that I might not normally have splashed out on isn’t always the easiest, so Chichester Festival Theatre’s announcement that their staging of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests would be in the round, and that onstage ‘terrace’ seating would be available, a plan fell into place. And so for two of the three plays, I was up onstage (in different seats) and for the third, down in the stalls.
Seeing the plays from different perspectives felt appropriate as that is the nature of Ayckbourn’s trilogy written in 1973. Three times we visit the same group of six characters over the same weekend but based in a different part of the house. So (in the order I saw them on this trilogy day, a couple of days before press night I should add), Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden is in the attic*.
So as we meet Annie, her brother and sister Reg and Ruth and their respective partners Sarah and Norman, plus her neighbour Tom, the circumstances that prevail to force them into spending the weekend together, there’s huge amounts of bittersweet humour – and sometimes just bitterness – that pours out between them, the familial bonds and unexpected ties that bind them revealed piecemeal as we cycle through each slightly different version of events. 
And directed as they are by the ever-growing talent that is Blanche McIntyre, they sparkle with a freshness that belies their 44 years of age, proving to be a far more emotionally involving day of theatre than I was at all expecting. Despite the epicness of the scale, Ayckbourn’s skill is to keep things really quite intimate between this sextet and McIntyre’s gift is to cut through much of the naffness to really zone in on this emotion, and intensify it to blistering effect.
She brushes efficiently through some of the more hackneyed devices – woman is blind without glasses she won’t wear, the diatribes against salad – so that their humour doesn’t get worn out and instead focuses on character. Sarah Hadland’s tightly-wound Sarah is exceptional here – running her finger along the radiator for dust as soon as she enters the house, repolishing a bit of crockery she dropped whilst setting the table (whether impromptu or not), a phenomenal level of commitment to her finer details of her character that justifies the decision to spend this much time watching
But it really is an ensemble piece, and one with the time and room to let various different permutations play out to beautiful effect. So Hadland and Jonathan Broadbent’s seemingly hapless Reg hold Table Manners hostage with a confrontation of heart-stopping potency before a dinner party where the tensions between all six boil over. Living Together (my least favourite of three tbh) is at its best when the three siblings come together for a beautifully understated scene full of shared history, acted superlatively by Broadbent with Jemima Rooper (in a career best performance) as Annie and a wonderfully fruity Hattie Ladbury as Ruth.
John Hollingworth gets his chance to shine best in the slapstick nature of Round and Round the Garden and threatening to steal the show in them all in Trystan Gravelle’s Norman. Hints of Brian Blessed shine through in his outrageous showmanship but real charm too as we delve deeper into the havoc he causes in each of the women’s lives and his own emotional shortcomings too. Layered up across the three shows, it really is a fantastic achievement by all. 
Simon Higlett’s design makes the most of the reconfiguration of the space with a brilliant attention to detail from the Women’s Weeklies to the battered ‘biscuits for cheese’ tin to brilliant costumes in any number of shades of brown. Johanna Town’s lighting and George Dennis’ sound are resplendent in naturalistic detail and I really do urge you to splash out for at least one show on the terrace, as it gives you a Donmar-like intensity being that close. As an all-day experience that never felt like a slog (the camaraderie between those of you in for the long-haul is always an added bonus), this was an unexpected real treat, especially as I’m no real fan of Ayckbourn – does this mean I’m getting middle-aged now?!
Running time: Table Manners – 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval); Living Together – 2 hours (with interval); Round and Round the Garden – 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)

Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 28th October
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