Chichester Festival Theatre – until 28 October 2017
A JOYFUL JIGSAW: TABLE MANNERS, LIVING TOGETHER, ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN
In more rigorous technical times there was an art school exercise: “draw an imagined street-scene in perspective as if from an upper window at one end, then the same street and figures as seen from ground level the other end”.
What Alan Ayckbourn did in 1973, with this domestic six-handed trilogy, has that quality of intricate, interlocked perspective. Each play shows what is happening, at the same time or adrift by minutes, in three parts of a dilapidated Sussex vicarage: dining room, living room, garden. Sometimes a character exits to join another play, or comes in from a scene you will only see in the next show. The final part begins half an hour before the first and ends after them all, providing prequel and sequel by half an hour.
The maestro has said it doesn’t matter which you see first, as each makes sense: Chichester’s three-play days (there are four more to come) put them in the order above. Otherwise, take your pick. The concept in itself brilliant, but could have been hell. It isn’t: being vintage, observational, sad-heartedly compassionate Ayckbourn executed with flair, it is a treat.
The Festival Theatre has been set in the round as the playwright intended, as stage seats enable us – like the chaotic, overgrown garden – to circle Simon Higlett’s elegantly evocative sets (love the broken gnome, and the real roses). Blanche McIntyre directs with pace and wit: the cast – notably Sarah Hadland’s brittle nervously controlling Sarah – are superb.
The quality of direction is such that even when Trystan Gravelle’s seductively irresponsible Norman had his back to our side at the table for a long speech, the back of his scruffy neck and his fine Welsh projection were quite enough. Indeed throughout the plays the body language is particularly fine, from John Hollingworth’s amiable lolloping vet Tom to Sarah’s furious trip-trapping step and Annie’s glum hunch. Three of them even use the garden swing in character.
But goodness, among the considerable laughs (you can’t miss at Chichester with the East Grinstead joke) there is classic Ayckbourn pain. It deepens like a coastal shelf, and that Larkin echo is deliberate: glancing references betray that the three adult siblings Reg, Ruth and Annie were well f—d up by their unseen, now invalid, monster of a mother. So their own partnerships take the brunt. Hadland’s Sarah, brisk and neat and nervously controlling, has taken on the peacefully dim Reg (a touching mole-like Jonathan Broadbent in awful driving gloves). He yearns back to boyhood balsa aeroplanes, and nobody will play his invented board game. Sister Annie (Jemima Rooper) is festeringly lonely and has been landed with caring for Mother in a dowdy life leavened by the big literal-minded hunk Tom who frustratingly never makes a move. And sister Ruth (a fine striding Hattie Ladbury) is the forerunner of all these 21c women who in profiles find that out-earning their husbands causes problems. But she has scored the maverick assistant-librarian Norman.
For Norman, wild-bearded in a beanie hat, is the wild card. Gravelle is perfect as the irresponsible spirit of chaos: seducing Annie, beguiling prim Sarah even in her moments of greatest fury like Richard III wooing his Anne, and easily disarming his own scornful wife. His refrain is desire to make women “happy”. His weapon is claimed vulnerability and absurd humour. The strength of this subtle production is that you are quie often rooting for Norman, disgrace as he is. Since none of them are happy as they are, you might as well give it a roll…when he fixes you with that glittering eye, at least fun lies beyond it.
The skill of script and production is that facets of each of the six emerge , haphazard as life itself. By the last one we understand that Norman’s yearnings and manipulations come from need as well as mischief, and that his relationship with Ruth is necessary to both of them. It is all gloriously achieved, detailed and paced: no cardigan, traycloth, jam spoon, deckchair, lettuce, biscuit box or opaque carrot-wine flagon fails to contribute to the psychological jigsaw. It is as polished as the dining table, as evocative of life’s erosion as the shabby living-room, as pleasingly disorderly as the brambly grass around. The first and last plays are perfection; the middle – living-room – one is play is perhaps the least, though after a slower start its second act springs to vigorous life. The ensemble is a joy.
Box office. 01243 781312 To 28 oct
Sponsors: Conquest bespoke furniture and Irwin Mitchell
Table Manners and Round and Round the Garden FIVE
Living Together FOUR
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